Boston and Ice Cream—a match made in history

Photo: Katie Noble

Photo: Katie Noble

Boston’s love affair with ice cream is no summer romance. Bostonians eat ice cream in summer, fall, spring and winter. Even on the coldest, rawest day in February, we walk down the street eating ice cream cones or stop by a scoop shop for a dish. We are always true to our passion.

But we come by this intense love for ice cream honestly; many important developments in ice cream history began right here in Boston, courtesy of entrepreneurs and inventors like Frederick Tudor. Thanks to their ideas and innovations, we can now have top-quality ice cream anytime we like.

At the beginning of the 19th century when Tudor started his ice business, ice cream wasn’t readily available. First of all, you needed ice to make it, and ice wasn’t easy to get or store—even in chilly New England. Freezing ice cream, before electric refrigeration, was very difficult. After making the ice cream custard mixture, cooks poured it into a pot with a cover, then placed the pot in a larger container filled with a mixture of ice and salt. To make smooth ice cream, they had to open the pot from time to time and stir. At the same time, they had to keep turning the frigid pot itself. Once the ice cream was ready, if it wasn’t to be eaten immediately, it had to be stored in a container surrounded by ice. Ice was definitely the key.

 Frederick Tudor was a Bostonian who had a pond on his farm in Saugus, so he and his family often harvested ice and made their own ice cream at home. But when Tudor decided to turn natural ice into a profitable business, no one agreed or wanted to invest in this risky enterprise. Nevertheless, in 1806 he harvested enough ice to fill a ship and sailed south to Martinique to sell it. But the islanders didn’t know what to do with ice, and even if they did, there was no place to store it. Ever resourceful, Tudor persuaded a local restaurateur to use the ice to make ice cream, turning the tide and making the trip a success. After that, Tudor always promoted ice cream making as part of his ice sales pitch.

 It took time, bankruptcies—and even a stint in debtor’s prison—but Tudor was able to turn natural ice into an affordable commodity and kick off a veritable ice cream craze. Soon, every well-equipped household had an icebox. Ice was delivered to homes, restaurants and ice cream parlors daily. All sorts of ice cream making, freezing and storage equipment hit the market. Ice cream parlors, one of the few commercial places that were acceptable for ladies to patronize, became popular. Churches and charities raised money by holding ice cream socials and soda fountains began serving ice cream. Making ice cream at home was quick, easy and more common.

Ice cream at home and away

 As families began making ice cream at home they could rely on the women of the Boston Cooking School for recipes and freezing instructions. In the 1891 edition of her Boston Cook Book, Mrs. Mary Lincoln, the school’s founder, wrote, “A good ice-cream freezer should be in every kitchen.” Her book had more than two dozen recipes for ices and ice creams, in flavors ranging from baked apple to tutti-frutti.

Fannie Farmer, who became principal of the school in 1893, included more than three dozen recipes for ice creams and other frozen desserts in the 1896 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. Along with tasty recipes for ginger, caramel, macaroon and pistachio ice creams, she also inexplicably had instructions for “clam frappé,” made by steaming clams and then freezing them to “a mush.”

Although Boston was known for its many candy companies in the nineteenth century, it was ice cream that brought the most success to confectioners like Bailey’s, Schrafft’s and Brigham’s. Bailey’s ice cream sundaes still bring back fond memories. They were served with so much hot fudge or butterscotch sauce that it spilled over the ice cream dish into the saucer below. Children especially were thrilled with the bonus sauce. Founded in 1873, Bailey’s remained a local company until it closed its doors in 1989.

Schrafft’s first shop, which opened in Boston in 1861, was known for its excellent chocolates. As the company expanded, the shops began serving ice cream and became noted for soda fountains, sundaes and packaged ice cream. Eventually, there were shops in Boston, New York and throughout the Northeast. Schrafft’s long run ended in 1981. In its honor, the company’s former candy factory in Charlestown, now an office complex, is still crowned with the landmark Schrafft’s sign.

Edward L. Brigham opened a candy and ice cream shop in 1914 in Newton Highlands. Gradually focusing on ice cream rather than candy, the company prospered. By 1929, there were three branches. By the 1970s, there were more than 100. Today, the shops have closed, but fans can still buy their favorite Brigham’s ice cream in supermarkets.

The restaurant chain that’s best remembered for its orange-roofed restaurants along U.S. highways was founded in 1925 when Howard Deering Johnson started selling rich, high-butterfat ice cream at a stand on Quincy’s Wollaston Beach. Later, his shops offered “28 Delicious Flavors,” an impressive number at the time. Johnson pioneered the franchising concept, expanding to restaurants serving fried clams and hot dogs and always featuring high-quality ice cream. In the 1970s, there were more than 1,000 of the restaurants people fondly called “Ho-Jo’s.” But business slowed; gradually the numbers went down, and today there are none.

As the old, established ice cream shops declined, a new shop opened and revitalized the business in Boston and beyond. In 1973, a young man named Steve Herrell opened a scoop shop in Davis Square, Somerville. Soon customers were waiting happily in lines that wound down Elm Street to buy his homemade, small-batch ice cream. Herrell pioneered the practice of mixing M&Ms, cookie chunks and other goodies into ice cream and inspired a pair of entrepreneurs—named Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield—who later founded another successful ice cream business. Northampton is home to Herrell’s ice cream today.

Many Herrell’s employees founded their own scoop shops everywhere from Texas to, most notably, Cambridge, where Gus Rancatore opened Toscanini’s in Cambridge in 1981. That was a good year for ice cream shops. Vince Petryk opened J.P. Licks in Jamaica Plain that same year. Just two years later, Raymond Ford opened Christina’s ice cream shop in Cambridge. They’re all still going strong.

Boston’s love affair with ice cream may have begun long ago, but it clearly has a wonderful future.

Boston’s latest scoops are both local and international. These are some of the locals.

Forge Ice Cream Bar in Somerville feels like a funky, old-style ice cream shop. The house-made ice cream is old-style rich and creamy, too. 626b Somerville Avenue, Somerville

Gracie’s Ice Cream in Union Square, Somerville, features house-made ice cream in fun flavors. You can have your cone swirled with Marshmallow Fluff and torched. It’ll have you wanting s’more. 22 Union Square, Somerville

At Honeycomb Creamery in Cambridge, both the cones and the ice cream are house-made. On Taco Tuesdays, your taco-shaped cone will be filled with honey + oat ice cream, dipped in white chocolate and topped with granola and maple syrup. 1702 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

In Cambridge, just steps from MIT, the people at New City Microcreamery take the scientific approach and use liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze their house-made ice creams for a rich taste and smooth texture. 403 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

Vegans, those with nut allergies, dairy avoiders and regular ice cream lovers can all find their favorite flavors at Tipping Cow in Somerville. All are house-made and there are seasonal as well as perennial flavors. 415 Medford Street, Somerville

In addition to our home-grown talent, ice cream makers from all over the world are coming to Boston.

At Chinatown’s Juicy Spot Café, the latest scoop is a Thai ice cream roll. To make it, the ice cream is spread on a sub-zero metal plate, scraped into small rolls and topped with anything from grass jelly to sesame seeds. 16 Tyler Street, Boston

Two Italians who began by making gelato in Paris, Cristiano Sereni and Paolo Benassi, now have Amorino Gelato shops in Europe, Asia and Mexico as well as Boston and Cambridge. They’re known for their rose-petal-shaped scoops. 249 Newbury Street, Boston and 50 J.F.K. Street, Cambridge

The flavors of Iran have found a home in Watertown’s Dizin FruttiBerri, where Ali Toloui makes traditional Persian ice cream. A specialty is faloodeh, a refreshingly light, sorbet-like mixture featuring fine vermicelli noodles and flavored with rosewater. 127 Mt. Auburn Street, Watertown

For more ice cream stories from our archives, click here, here, here, here and here.