A Brief History of the Ice Cream Truck
It’s the sound of summer: a string of jangly notes cutting through the sticky-hot air. The response is Pavlovian. Mouths water. Parents reach for their wallets. Kids lace up their shoes and hit the pavement. For Ben Van Leeuwen, it was no different. Growing up in suburban Riverside, Conn., he’d race toward the siren song. The ice cream truck was coming.
In the sea of sweaty people elbowing to place orders, Van Leeuwen always took his time. He’d inspect the full menu. He’d imagine the flavors – Strawberry Shortcake, Choco Taco, King Cone. Then he’d pick what he always picked: a Reckless Rainbow Pop Up. “We were poor,” he laughs. The push pop was cheap.
Today, Van Leeuwen is an ice cream magnate. With six trucks and three storefronts in New York City, the company prides itself on its quality. Handcrafted recipes combine ingredients like Michel Cluizel chocolate from France, pistachios from Sicily, Tahitian vanilla beans from Papua New Guinea.
The history of frozen street treats begins long before Van Leeuwen encountered his first push pop – it begins before even mechanical refrigeration. That the cold treat had to come to America before it could move off kings’ tables and into the hands of common folk makes the story that much sweeter.
WE ALL SCREAM FOR ICE CREAM
Difficult to obtain and harder to store, ice itself was once a luxury. When the Roman Emperor Nero wanted Italian ice, he ordered it the old-fashioned way—dispatching his servants tofetch snow from mountain tops, wrap it in straw, and bring it back to mix with fruits and honey—a practice still popular with elites in Spain and Italy 1,500 years later. Around the world, monarchs in Turkey, India, and Arabia used flavored ices to punch up the extravagance at banquets, serving frosty bouquets flavored with fruit pulp, syrup, and flowers—often the grand finale at feasts intended to impress. But it wasn’t until the mid-16th century, when scientists in Italy discovered a process for on-demand freezing—placing a container of water in a bucket of snow mixed with saltpeter—that the ice cream renaissance truly began.
The innovation spread through European courts, and before long, royal chefs were whipping up red wine slushes, icy custards, and cold almond creams. Cooks experimented with every exotic ingredient in their arsenal: violets, saffron, rose petals. But while the excitement for ice cream grew, the treats were clearly reserved for the elite. The dessert needed a trip across the pond and a few more centuries of innovation before it could trickle down to the masses.
Ice cream came to America with the first colonists. British settlers brought recipes with them, and the treat found space at the Founding Fathers’ tables. George Washington loved it. Thomas Jefferson was such a fan that he studied the art of ice cream making in France and returned with a machine so he could churn his own flavors at Monticello. But even in this monarch-free land, the frosty desserts were an extravagance. Vanilla and sugar were expensive, and access to ice was limited. To serve the dessert year-round, Jefferson built himself an icehouse, refrigerated with wagonloads of ice harvested from the nearby Rivanna River. Still, even with all the means and materials, the road to producing ice cream was rocky.
Making a scoop was laborious. Cooks had to extract the iced mixture from a frozen pewter bucket, churn and blend it with cream by hand, and place the concoction back into the bucket for additional freezing. To get the desired silky texture, this churning had to be repeated multiple times over days. The process was long and taxing, and generally managed by servants or slaves.
THE ICE AGE
In the 1800s, the ice delivery industry exploded. Companies began harvesting frozen rivers and transporting ice to homes at affordable prices. Before long, ice cream was regularly served in parlors and tea gardens across the country. By the 1830s, ice cream’s role as an Independence Day treat was well established. But for the poor urban populations who couldn’t afford July 4th ices or the fresh ingredients to make ice cream at home, immigrant street vendors came to the rescue. Fresh off the boat and with limited job prospects, these innovators used their culinary talents to grasp at the American dream, selling frozen treats from carts chilled with ice.
Italyand France was where ice cream was first truly developed; they made it delicious. In the U.S., they developed the business. The cheap wooden wagons let proprietors avoid rent and taxes that came with setting up a store. And demand for their wares was always high.
Before the invention of the ice cream cone, vendors scooped ice cream into a regular glass, which a customer would lick clean. Then they returned the glass to the peddler, who would swish it in a pail before refilling it for the next customer. It was an entirely unsanitary practice.
But it was the ice cream sandwich that truly melted the social boundaries, as blue and white collars alike huddled around pushcarts on hot summer days. They started ice cream as a street food. It was a walk-around food—you’d stand up and eat it. Ice cream had become a staple of the American diet—not just for the rich and powerful, but for everybody—and it was about to get even more mobile.
On a winter evening in 1920, candy maker Harry Burt was puttering around his ice cream shop. Burt had made a name for himself by sticking a wooden handle on a ball of candy to create a lollipop. Ready for a bigger challenge, he set out to create an ice cream novelty. He started by mixing coconut oil and cocoa butter to seal a smooth block of vanilla ice cream in the silky chocolate coating. The treat looked good, but it was messy. When his daughter Ruth grabbed for the bar, more of the chocolate coating ended up on her hands than her mouth. Burt’s son, came up with a better idea: Why not use the sticks from the lollipops as handles?
In 1920, Burt invested in 12 refrigerator trucks for distribution around the city. He made sure they were pristine white and put professional-looking drivers in signature white uniforms to signify cleanliness and safety to parents. Then he crafted a scheme for luring the kids. He promised to follow a specified route so families would know when to expect the truck to come by. A bell chimed so everyone would know they could come out and purchase ice cream. Before long, the sound was synonymous with the ice cream man.
The ice cream trucks – except for the trucks’ tune technology—the jingle is now blasted loud and clear through electronic circuits—are unchanged, right down to the classic menu on the side. For close to 50 years, that menu board has changed only four times.
Whether they’re vintage or modern, classic or creative, ice cream trucks have a seductive allure that’s about more than just ice cream. They summon a particular kind of nostalgia—the sense of freedom and possibility that comes from long, carefree summer days and the particular thrill of having a dollar in your pocket and a long list of treats from which to choose. The ice cream man has basically been doing the same thing for hundreds of years now—exciting crowds by delivering something utterly familiar wrapped in different packages. But there’s comfort in that.
Practice some of the words in the text by using them to fill in the gaps in these sentences.
1. The Emperor Nero ordered his servants to …………… snow from the mountains.
2. InItalian courts a …………… of snow was used for freezing.
3. InEuropean courts cooks experimented with exotic …………… .
4. Ice cream was exported to America by the first …………… .
5. First servants or slaves managed the long …………… of making ice cream.
6. Inthe early 19th century …………… appeared where ice cream was served.
7. Poorer people could buy ice cream from street …………… .
8. Ice cream was scooped into a regular glass before the invention of the ice cream …………… .
9. Ice cream became a …………… of the American diet in the 20th century.
10. The ice cream truck reminds people of long …………… summer days.