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A history of baked and fried ice cream, from Thomas Jefferson to the World's Fair to Chi-Chi's
Hello, Snackers. Let’s talk about a food fight that’s been going on since the 1860s or maybe earlier: What’s the origin of baked and fried ice cream? It gets weird and complicated—exactly how we like our history here at Snack Stack.
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The first time I had fried ice cream was at a Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant just off Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, around 1990. I remember almost nothing about the meal other than the barest outlines: I ate a taco or two (hard shell, ground beef) and then we (Who? I don’t remember) shared a dessert of fried ice cream. The lightly crunchy exterior was covered with a squiggly lattice of chocolate sauce and honey; the whole thing was topped with a frilly crown of whipped cream and a maraschino cherry.
It was too sweet and honestly not really my thing, but it was beguiling nonetheless, thanks to its sheer intrigue of something so cold inside something so hot. The combination seemed impossible.
Over the last thirty or so years, I’ve encountered other variations on the same theme, in the form of baked Alaska and tempura ice cream. But I had never thought to stop and consider the origin story. Who was the first mad scientist to try cooking ice cream inside something else?
When I finally did the research, it turned out to be even more complicated and contentious than I ever imagined.
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First things first: fried ice cream is not Mexican. As far as I can tell, Chi-Chi’s just thought it sounded vaguely exotic and added it to their menu when the chain started in 1975, at a time when Tex-Mex was taking off as a food trend. Tex-Mex is its own glorious and authentic thing (read this from Texas Monthly if you have doubts) and involves all kinds of adaptations and riffs on its south-of-the-border roots. But even by these standards, Chi-Chi’s was a whole different thing: a chain restaurant with a menu forged in the chain-restaurant factory, with cheesecake and Mexican pizza and, well, fried ice cream. (After peaking with more than 200 restaurants, mostly in the Midwest, Chi-Chi’s folded in the USA in the early 2000s but it endures in Bruges and Vienna. I had like 5,000 more words on this specific topic but deleted them for purposes of staying focused on ice cream.)
Anyway! Fried ice cream at Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants is probably a legacy of Chi-Chi’s in the 1970s, so we can take that off our list of origin stories.
The other possibilities you’ll usually find in the internet’s various histories of fried ice cream (like this one) are:
A confectioner in Philadelphia in 1894
The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago
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Let’s start with the Philly version.
The archival evidence is quite clear that there was, indeed, someone—though we don’t know an exact name—in that city who claimed to have invented fried ice cream in the spring of 1894. There were stories about it all over the USA (similar in tone to modern articles on, say, the Cronut), including this one from The Roanoke Times, reprinted from The New York Times:
All of the ensuing coverage of fried ice cream focused on the same thing that had impressed me as a kid: the novelty of it all. In their attempts to find new angles on the craze, reporters sometimes got weird. A writer in the Mount Caramel Register, in Illinois, put an oddly misogynistic spin on it in April 1894:
Our poor young men are to be made poorer. The ice cream girl has heretofore been content with plain ice cream, but now there is fried ice cream and baked ice cream, and she will have them. The misery wrought in this world by untimely inventions cannot be measured.
Cooking a peacock with its feathers on may be a lost art, but it certainly was a fine art, if fine feathers count. The fried ice-cream of our day may be as a great a novelty, but it is not so gorgeous.
It’s clear there was a genuine food trend going on here, one that lasted for decades. I found ads for offering fried ice cream businesses as a get-rich-quick enterprise throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, all the way through 1939, when a classified ads ran in Popular Mechanics (“You prepare it, people fight for it. 98% profit”).
All the reporting and all the hype—the whole trend of fried ice cream—seems to have started with the shop in Philadelphia in 1884. As for the claim that fried ice cream originated a year earlier, at the World’s Fair in Chicago, there appear to be no mentions of the food in the ample coverage of that mega-event, and the first time anyone proposed this possible origin was a piece in The Ice Cream Trade Journal in 1909. So we’ll give this one to Philadelphia.
But there’s more to the story.
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Before there was fried ice cream, there was baked ice cream—the former is a clear adaptation of the latter.
We know, for instance, that Thomas Jefferson ate a form of baked ice cream when he was president, as a dinner guest documented at the time:
Washington, February 10, 1802. 'On Tuesday I wrote that I was going to dine with the President [Jefferson]. The party was easy and sociable, as all these parties are. Among other things ice-creams were produced in the form of balls of the frozen material inclosed in covers of warm pastry, exhibiting a curious contrast, as if the ice had just been taken from the oven.
(I’m not sure who the chef was on this particular occasion, although James Hemings—Jefferson’s personal chef for many years—died in 1801, so it wasn’t him; it’s possible the recipe built on his cooking and French training.)
We also know that Baked Alaska came along in 1867. The Food Timeline, citing the Oxford English Dictionary, credits a New York chef named Charles Ranhofer with creating the first version of the dish, and giving it that name, in honor of the USA’s purchase of what would become the forty-ninth state.
But this turns out to be an interesting time for baked ice cream, because across the Atlantic, chefs had already started experimenting with similar foods. The iconic culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, published in 1938, cites an 1866 newspaper column from Paris about a variation on this dish that was starting to catch on:
it was the master-cook of the Chinese Mission, visiting Paris at the time who, if not invented, at least popularised this paradoxical omelette, which combines the cold and hot...'During the stay of the Chinese Mission in Paris, the master-cooks of the Celestial Empire have exchanged civilities and information with the chefs of the Grand Hotel.
So Chinese chefs introduced baked ice cream dishes to Parisian diners in 1866. A year later, Ranhofer started making Baked Alaska. And back in Paris, a new slew of stories emerged, crediting Japanese chefs at the Grand Hotel and Japanese embassy with pioneering a new hot-meets-cold dessert:
The parallels between the accounts are striking. Do we really think that both Chinese and Japanese chefs at the Grand Hotel and embassies in Paris created this dish independently and within a year of each other? Or do we have yet another example of white journalists being kinda racist and ignorant and getting Japanese and Chinese people mixed up? I’m guessing the latter!
A few newspaper stories I found from 1867 say that the baked ice cream developed at the Grand Hotel made its way to the World’s Fair in Paris that year. This might explain the origins of the claim that fried ice cream came from the Chicago World’s Fair, decades later—it seems entirely plausible that someone somewhere got mixed up in their understanding of quirky desserts and World’s Fairs. It also may also provide a clue as to how Charles Ranhofer got his idea for Baked Alaska: this is pure speculation, but it seems plausible that he heard about the new treat in Paris and tweaked it to create his own version, which he then marketed aggressively.
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Last thing. I’m not sure how much credence to give this, because when I try to fact-check it, I find nothing conclusive. But, with that caveat, there was at least one person going “WELL, ACTUALLY” to the newspaper stories in 1867. From the Detroit Free Press:
Arguing about food in the comments section, it turns out, is a pastime humans have loved for centuries.
Thanks to photographer extraordinaire Kirsten Alana for suggesting this topic! If you have an idea for a future Snack Stack post, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop me a line on Twitter @douglasmack.
— Doug Mack, Snack Fan
Happy snacking and thanks for reading! If you liked this, you’ll probably also like this post on the origins of seven-layer dip or this one on the roots of Chinese chicken fingers. Check out the Snack Stack Table of Contents right over here to see what other foods we’ve covered … and please subscribe to get more posts in your inbox!