The History of a Frivolous, Yet Essential, Treat

In Ice Cream: A Delicious History, Marilyn Powell offers a thematic and often reflective personal history of one of our most mythologized and beloved culinary traditions.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

As desserts go, nothing tickles the taste buds and the nostalgia bank quite like ice cream. The cling clang of the ice cream truck, the fluted sundaes of the soda fountain, the homemade stuff that dad used to make - churning that mixture of heavy cream and rock salt.

Marilyn Powell has written a new book called Ice Cream: The Delicious History. She says tracing the dessert's murky origins proved difficult that that's part of its special appeal. And she offers this reading about ice cream's special place in our lives.

Ms. MARILYN POWELL (Author, Ice Cream: The Delicious History): “If you eat ice cream, you're in pursuit of a pleasure that began with a shock. Your initiation into surprisingly cold and transitory bliss. A fallen cone gave you an appreciation of comedy and tragedy - how quickly one turns into the other.

“And yet you continue to pursue ice cream because you've never outgrown the bliss. You don't eat ice cream to satisfy physical hunger. If food were labeled essential or frivolous, ice cream would obviously belong in the frivolous category.”

NORRIS: In the frivolous category, and yet after interviewing so many people, it seems that most of the people who talked to you thought that ice cream was absolutely essentially.

Ms. POWELL: Yes, but they thought that they were playing when they ate it.

NORRIS: Why did you decide to write this book?

Ms. POWELL: Well, I carried around a story for years and years, from the time I was a student, about Richard the Lion Heart and Saladin the (unintelligible) or Arab chieftain in one of the crusades. And when Richard the Lion Heart was ill, so the story goes, Saladin sent him some sherbet.

And I was curious about how this could be, or whether it was a fact or a fiction. And what I found was that there is an Arab drink called Sharab, or more current Arabic, Sharbat. And it's possible that Richard knew about it. He certainly had ambassadors go to Saladin's camp and order fresh fruit because he was very ill. And it's possible that he had something that the - well, it would be sort of like a slushee. It would be a wonderful Arab drink, which is half-ice and half-fruit pulp. Sounds good to me.

NORRIS: If I can share with you one of the things that I found surprising in the book is the dish, the ice cream sundae dates back to the Temperance Movement.

Ms. POWELL: Because the fact that in the early ice cream parlors, they would add things that had an alcoholic content when they were making a soda. When they removed that - the ice cream makers are really smart - they realized that they can promote themselves as the healthy alternative.

NORRIS: What happens when you ask people to talk about ice cream?

Ms. POWELL: Oh, that was the joy of doing the book. Personal stories emerged. Many people said to me, I remember this flavor of ice cream when I was a kid. One man said to me, I had banana ice cream. I've never had ice cream that good since. It seems to really go back through life for many people and that really was a gift to me when they would share those personal memories. I guess I should also say that I love to eat ice cream, so it was not a subject that was a chore to do.

NORRIS: Because I figured that there had to be some personal, there ought to be some culinary connection. The love of ice cream involved in this.

Ms. POWELL: The love of eating ice cream anyway.

NORRIS: Did you eat a lot of it as you were researching the book? I mean, at the end of the day you kept a freezer full?

Ms. POWELL: I did. And, in fact, when the book was completed, I had eaten so much ice cream that for the first month or two after the book was done, I didn't want to eat any ice cream. But I am happy to say the lust for it has returned.

NORRIS: Marilyn, it's been great talking to you. Happy eating!

Ms. POWELL: Thanks a lot. Take care. You, too.

NORRIS: Marilyn Powell, she's the author of Ice Cream: A Delicious History.

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