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The Empress of Ice Cream

Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices

by Elizabeth David, edited by Jill Norman
Viking, 413 pp., $24.95

Elizabeth David’s first cookbooks burst upon a Britain newly delivered from wartime rationing. To that shell-shocked and hungry and country her words must have been a balm, as in this preface to A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), her very first:

With this selection…of Mediterranean dishes, I hope to give some idea of the lovely cookery of those regions to people who do not already know them, and to stir the memories of those who have eaten this food on its native shores, and who would like sometimes to bring a flavor of those blessed lands of sun and sea and olive trees into their English kitchens.1

Often those first English readers could only read her books and day-dream, but gradually their privations disappeared, and then Mediterranean Food could take its rightful place on their kitchen bookshelves, joined by French Country Cooking (1951) and Italian Food (1954). By 1960, when French Provincial Cooking threw its mighty heft against the drab tyranny of “meat and two veg,” the author’s characteristic mix of tart practicality and deep erudition had already begun to work its changes on the English palate. In the late 1980s, David, by that time a living English institution, C.B.E., Chevalier du Mérite Agricole, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, embarked on a study that would leave behind the anecdotal world of recipes for a sustained historical study. Although she did not live to see its completion, her extensive drafts for the work have now been edited (by Jill Norman) and published under the title Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices.

Distributed in the United States at the height of the unprecedentedly hot summer of 1995, Harvest of the Cold Months seemed to promise a light refreshment, a kind of intellectual sorbet to reawaken its readers’ wilting spirits. But Elizabeth David was never that kind of writer. Food and its history have long been the domain of keenly intelligent, physically imposing, mature women—it is no accident that Juno, their archetype, was the goddess of memory as well as domestic virtue, and that any encounter with Juno was a collision with pure force rather than an Arcadian romp in the woods. A philosophical take on cooking requires the magisterial participation of both mind and hand, not to mention a ruthless command of quality and an artful feeling for detail, tactile as well as spiritual, an assemblage of skills that comes neither easily nor early in life. For the sixteen-year-old Elizabeth David, studying French history and literature at the Sorbonne while boarding with a terrifyingly greedy French family, her hosts’ all-consuming preoccupation with what they ate only gradually transformed her existence. Eventually, however, through the lens of her sharp English wit, their single-minded obsession with food became her particular passion, too. Yet her metamorphosis into a culinary writer never dulled her initial taste for pure research. It is the thoughtfulness and depth of her cookbooks that have made them such enduring institutions; far more than collections of recipes, they are really treatises on human civility. In her own words, “the respective merits…of food are less important than the spirit in which cooking is approached, a devoted, a determined, spirit, but not, it is to be hoped, one of martyrdom.”2

A departure in content as well as form, Harvest of the Cold Months began as an investigation (launched in the mid-1970s) of early European icecream recipes, but quickly expanded to a global scale, reflecting Mrs. David’s longtime interest in early travelers’ accounts. She then turned her endless curiosity to the mechanical means of producing cold, an art that first emerged in the seventeenth century, and finally to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on means for supplying the world’s ever-growing demand for ice.

Yet, ice cream aside, the subject of frozen water is strange food for thought. If fire is the Promethean gift that first made us civilized, ice is a bewildering opposite; it has been tamed only by civilizations so advanced into decadence that they can warp the seasons, demanding snow in their summer drinks or ephemeral sculptures of pooling ice at the centers of their dining tables. The primal, elementally human quality of the campfire or the hearth gives way to a shiver of perverse pleasure when it comes to the activity that our forebears called “drinking cool.” (What, indeed, could be more limitlessly suggestive than the proposition a friend received in Athens one summer day years ago: “How about a nice tall cool one?”)

Ice appeals to an altogether different part of the psyche than the cooking fire, for cold embalms whatever it touches, right down to the atomic-level stasis of absolute zero. If the inferno has no apparent limits, we know that the physical world grinds to a halt at 273 centigrade degrees below the point at which water freezes (-459.67°F). It took far less cold than that to freeze the woolly mammoths that have occasionally popped free from Russian glaciers, not to mention one careless Copper Age wanderer in the Austrian Alps who languished there snowbound until our own days of global warming melted his icy sepulcher.

Inevitably, too, unseasonable ice brings up the ambiguous specter of civilization at its most aggressive: overlords, empires, and the Industrial Revolution, which eventually replaced the worldwide shipping of natural ice with mechanical manufacture—not, paradoxically, by means of the manipulation of cold, but of heat.3 Iced food and drink have continued, all the while, to be associated with ill health, sin, and bad company, the sustenance of decadent colonials or devil-may-care gourmands. In 1624, Elizabeth David tells us, Francis Bacon declared that “the Producing of Cold is a thing very worthy of the Inquisition.” To this day, most Italians avoid iced drinks as harmful to stomach and liver; they drink their summer tea chilled, but mistrust it when poured over clinking cubes of frozen water. Ice-cream manufacturers, meanwhile, invite their customers to give way to sin and temptation.

Like any other successful writer with a retentive head for detailed facts, David was her own most exigent editor; her posthumous book lacks the crucial shaping touches that distinguish the rest of her work, her characteristic illumination of details by an overarching point of view. To be sure, her penultimate book, English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), also had a strong historical component, but Harvest of the Cold Months marks a significant departure because it is organized by time and place rather than by foodstuff, and unleavened (if also uninterrupted) by recipes. In its present state her “social history of ice and ices” still drags occasionally, and still lacks a commanding voice, although it seems likely that had she lived to finish it, such a voice would eventually have emerged. Food history, as the province of elemental needs and strong personalities, has tended to breed strong opinions, most of which begin from the premise that cooking and eating are basic to the creation of human culture. Thus Redcliffe Salaman’s oddly titled classic The History and Social Influence of the Potato began as a botanical investigation, but it became a powerful study of how social forces shape our choice of food, and how our choice of food in turn shapes society:

The potato being the cheapest and one of the most efficient single foods man has yet cultivated in the temperate zones, lends itself readily to the task of solving labor problems, along certain well-defined lines, in a society which, for any reason, is already stratified into social classes…. The potato can, and generally does, play a twofold part: that of a nutritious food, and that of a weapon ready forged for the exploitation of a weaker group in a mixed society.4

A cheap staple food, in other words, will work to lower the general standard of living. The exclusive cultivation of a cheap staple food, like nineteenth-century Ireland’s dependence on the potato, can lead, with the help of a new plant disease or a spate of bad weather, to devastating famine. As we have now discovered, the exploding world population of the later twentieth century faces new versions of the challenge Salaman articulated in 1949, and recent writers have tried to face that challenge. Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner traces the stories of the foods that make up a typical North American meal, and also turns a penetrating eye on food as industry, on what we eat and how it is produced.5 Gary Paul Nabhan’s Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves analyzes similar pressures on the agriculture of modern Italy.6 Nor can social history treat the palate without engaging the mind; T. Sarah Peterson’s Acquired Taste traces modern cookery to the development of French Rationalism in the seventeenth century, contrasting our salt and tart regiment of today with the saffron-tinged, highly spiced foods of ancient Rome and the Arabs; the yuppie vision of food as medicine thus reveals its historical antecedents in medieval elixirs.7

Elizabeth David was herself a highly opinionated gastronome, as the following excerpts prove:

Sage…I find the musty dried-blood smell overpowering.8

Fenugreek…is responsible for the ugly smell—no doubt to many a whiff of Paradise—and to some extent for the coarse taste of made-up curry powder. Fenugreek is to curry much as malt vinegar is to English salads.9

Rosemary has great charm as a plant but in cookery it is treacherous herb. The oil which comes from the leaves is very powerful and can kill the taste of any meat. Finding those spiky little leaves in one’s mouth is not very agreeable either.10

The 1987 revised edition of French Provincial Cooking provides a smart disquisition on nouvelle cuisine, whose tendencies to pretense mostly seem to amuse her: “those airy little nothings accompanied by their trois sauces served in doll’s house swimming pools round one side of the plate.”11 She joins Julia Child at a London nouvelle restaurant:

When the charmingly solemn young maitre d’hotel had come to the end of his recitation of the content and style of each dish on the menu, Julia remarked, and it was a simple statement with no trace of criticism, “Oh, I see, cuisinart cooking.”12

David’s earlier books give abundant hints about the direction in which she might have further pointed her book on ice, which, for sheer labor intensity, has a good deal in common with nouvelle cuisine; and with the same gentle acerbity she displays there, she explores that labile border between civilized refinement and sheer folly.

It was the Chinese, she tells us, who seem to have first perfected the mechanisms for preserving ice out of season some three thousand years ago, for a poem runs: “In the days of the second month, they hew out the ice…in the third month they convey it to the ice houses.” The preconditions for this kind of ice-keeping are at once climatological, political, and cultural, beginning with the hot summers that first induce the longing for a truly cool drink, and then the means to satisfy that craving: ready access, at least seasonally, to frozen regions, and a highly organized society, one portion of which must be available to supply cheap labour for another portion, ready to indulge tastes that run at least to the seemingly impossible and perhaps to the bizarre—for, in a certain sense, Bronze Age China’s appetite for summer ice has much in common with that same culture’s later propensity for contortionist acrobats, footbinding, and carpets made of woven ivory; civilization bends everything out of shape.

Ptolemaic Egypt and ancient Rome, she goes on, would also discover the delights of drinking cool, in the Egyptians’ case diverting snows from Syria and Lebanon across the Mediterranean to Alexandria. Much of the cargo melted en route, of course, but one of water’s remarkable properties is its high specific heat: it takes a great deal of energy to alter its temperature one way or another. Hot water will stay hot, as we usually remember only after we have swallowed perfervid coffee from a Styrofoam cup; so, too, cooked tomatoes, mostly water, reserve a scalding burst of pent-up heat for their more impatient eaters.

Ice and snow, by the same token, will stay frozen as long as they possibly can. Packed into underground chambers, covered by straw, branches, or sawdust, ice could keep year-round with a few careful precautions. Collected as snow, cut from the surface of frozen lakes, or gathered in the dead of frosty nights from specially designed ceramic troughs, this most immoderate of luxuries appealed precisely because it seemed to moderate the extremes of the seasons. And because it seemed to lead back to equilibrium, summer ice, despite what must often have been a daunting level of impurity, enjoyed a reputation for healthfulness as well as decadence.

In ancient Rome, for example, the city, ringed by dormant volcanoes, had always had easy access to snow in the winter months. One breakneck downhill run could bring the snows of Alba, Tibur, or Tusculum to the swank tables of the Palatine; hence, the ancient cookbook that goes under the name of the Roman gourmet Apicius contains two recipes for snow-chilled aspic—a version of that time-honored restorative, chicken soup. Centuries later, as David relates, the Persians and then the Ottoman Turks would ice the smooth drinks called sharbia, deliciously viscous decoctions of sugared rose, orange blossom, or jasmine, sometimes combined with an acid jolt of lemon or verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes). Chilling was believed to augment the healing powers of the sharbia’s sugar and aromatics, for these saccharine soft drinks, like their not-so-distant relative, Coca-Cola, were concocted originally to promote good health. (Medical advice may form yet another chapter in the history of human perversity.)

In the Islamic world, she finds, sharbias continued in their state of liquidity, but when they were transplanted to Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they quickly solidified to become the various sherbets, sorbets, water ices, bombes, and cream ices purveyed to an army of ready consumers from every level of the social scale. In Paris, ices were served along with chocolate, coffee, and spirits in a new institution, the café. David describes how Naples was the undisputed center of creative inspiration for these gelati, again for reasons both geophysical and cultural; the glittering capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies carried out its voluptuary existence in a spectacular natural setting, where citrus groves, fertile farms, and teeming marine life created a gastronomic heaven. In the midst of extravagant compositions with cream, spices, and candied fruit, lemon ice, made with the fat sweet lemons of Amalfi, was—and is—the most delicious of them all. Everyone partook; David quotes the Irish traveler Lady Morgan, who reported in 1820 that

half-naked beggars stop to ber fresco, drink cold, or eat an ice, confidently trusted to them with a silver spoon, by the merchants they habitually deal with….

Ice was not only prized in gelati and sherbets, but also as a splendid preservative for vegetables, fish, and seafood, not to mention more robust meats. (The Persians had perfected portable ice chests centuries before.) Iceboxes became standard equipment for well-off kitchens, just as centerpieces of carved or molded ice served to cool summer banquets even as they astounded the guests. A whole genre of specialized vessels was invented for the making and serving of ices: tall facsimiles of the newly fashionable ancient Greek vases, or shapely silver molds, whose conductivity made them desirable despite their short functional life. (Gelati were frozen in beds of salted ice, and the salt quickly corroded the silver.)

Dolls, flower arrangements, or flecks of gold leaf might be encased in an icy obelisk; or, David tells us, the ice itself might be molded and colored to resemble every other sort of food, from a turkey roast to a bowl of apples. Ever since the Renaissance, hired brigands had been known to ply the roads to Rome, diverting cargoes of frosty pelf from one aristocratic garden party to another. Modern ice merchants, on the other hand, have more often been plagued by stolid bureaucrats, like the British customs officials who, in 1822, kept a Norwegian vessel moored in the Thames until they could decide upon the proper classification for its frozen cargo. By the time they had defined it as ” dry goods,” it had melted to bilge water.13

London, and the English in general, proved as greedy for ice as any of the world’s previous empire builders. By the eighteenth century, David finds Italian émigrés who subscribed as members of the confectioners’ guild and set up shop to purvey “creamices,” whose recipes they guarded with operatic jealousy. In London, too, the Industrial Revolution first made its presence felt in the ice trade, as a preservative for Scottish salmon, shipped fresh rather than smoked or salted, for Australian lamb, suddenly marketable abroad, and as block ice, a mass import in itself, cut from the Greenland ice cap, or from lakes in Norway and North America. Henry David Thoreau’s winter days and nights on Walden Pond were punctuated by the presence of ice workers:

Thus for sixteen days I saw from my window a hundred men at work like busy husbandmen, with teams and horses and apparently all the implements of farming, such a picture as we see on the first page of the almanac… and now they are all gone, and in thirty days more, I shall look from the same window on the pure sea-green Walden water there, reflecting the clouds and the trees, and sending up its evaporations in solitude, and no traces will appear that a man has ever stood there…. Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well…. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides… melts in the tropic gales of the India seas, and is landed in parts of which Alexander only heard the names.14

The Wenham Lake Company of Massachusetts, one of the most successful of the nineteenth-century ice ventures, expanded so rapidly that a single lake was no longer sufficient to meet the world’s demand for ice; the company eventually purchased Lake Oppegaard in Norway, rechristening this body of water “Wenham Lake” in a laudable effort to preserve truth in advertising.15 All too soon, however, manufactured ice and mechanical refrigeration would change the shape of the industry into the forms we recognize today.

The ability to harvest natural ice has depended not only on culture but also on climate; a subject David hardly discusses. If Egypt’s access to snow from the Levant was predicated on the empire that opened transportation routes, the stories of ice brigandage in early modern Rome and the Baroque gelati of Naples reflect the abundant snows supplied by the harsh winters of the “Little Ice Age,” a period of worldwide cooling that lasted from the late fifteenth century to the end of the nineteenth (approximately from 1490–1900). 16 This prolonged chill drove cod banks south from the coasts off Greenland and Iceland to the North Sea. Scots of the period between 1690 and 1728 were occasionally surprised by the sudden appearance of a kayaking Inuit, deftly navigating their frozen firths in his solo craft. Arctic shamanism made its appearance among polite Scandinavian society, at least according to one amusing Norwegian chronicle.17

Today, as the Little Ice Age fades into increasingly remote history—Charles Dickens’s nostalgia for an “old fashioned” snowy Christmas shows that the phenomenon was fast abating in his lifetime 18—a new breed of ice cutters stalks the dense snow caps of Greenland and Antarctica to harvest cores of the layered ice accumulated there over thousands of years. Air bubbles trapped in the ice sheets, when analyzed, reveal how different the earth’s atmosphere has been in times past.19 Frozen specks of dust and pollen provide further clues to past climates. The ice layers themselves, as compressed remnants of annual snowfalls, can be counted and studied much as tree rings are, testifying as tree rings do to levels of temperature and precipitation. The longest of these cores extend over two thousand meters; the famous Vostok sample, drilled from the ice cap of eastern Antarctica, reached down 2,546 meters and perhaps 160,000 years back into time. In cycles of about 100,000 years, the earth’s waxing and waning periods of glaciation are now accessible as never before to close analysis, hinting at our global past as well as what we might expect in the future.

That future, of course, has become the subject of urgent interest as the Little Ice Age gives way to fears of global warming. The modern world has seen a significant increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane, along with other so-called “greenhouse gases,” heat-absorbing substances whose collective presence may heat the planet’s atmosphere by several degrees in the next few centuries. The long view of climatic history afforded by ice cores shows that any such increases are accompanied by a complex range of side effects: changes in cloud cover, in sea level, in the earth’s albedo, or general brightness, all of them consequential, all of them further augmented by perpetually ongoing changes in the poles and orbit of the earth itself. And one of the most conspicuous changes in the present-day atmosphere has actually resulted from the world’s insatiable hunger for manufactured ice.

The process of ice-making, as David observes, has always been messy and inefficient. Dirt, sawdust, and horse dung tainted the old-fashioned natural product. Now pollution lurks less notably in the ice itself than in the man-made gases devised for the cooling chambers of refrigerators. Freon and the other brand-name chlorofluorocarbons were once thought to be miraculously unreactive and now prove to be lethal to Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer. The long, tall, cool one, it seems, has lost none of its moral ambiguity.

  1. 1

    Elizabeth David, Mediterranean Food, revised edition (Penguin, 1987), p. x.

  2. 2

    Elizabeth David, French Country Cooking, second revised edition (Penguin, 1966), p. 9.

  3. 3

    Refrigerators make use of physical process familiar to everyone who has ever perspired on a hot day. Perspiration can evaporate—i.e., change from a liquid to a gas—only if energy is applied to it. When liquids vaporize, they obtain energy by absorbing heat from their surroundings, leaving them cooler. The ethyl chloride sprayed on an injured athlete cools and anesthetizes by the same process: it evaporates from the skin and leaves the athlete cooler. In the cooling chamber, or evaporator, of a refrigerator, compressed liquid refrigerant is squirted through a nozzle into a lower pressure region, inducing the liquid to vaporize and causing its surroundings to become chilly. Once outside the insulated and cooled chamber, the vaporized refrigerant is run through a motor-driven compressor and condensed back to its liquid state, a process that gives back all of the heat absorbed during vaporization. The liquefied refrigerant then circles back into the cooling chamber, where it will vaporize again.

  4. 4

    Redcliffe Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato (1949), revised with an introduction by J.G. Hawkes (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 60.

  5. 5

    Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal (Collier, 1986).

  6. 6

    Gary Paul Nabhan, Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves: An American Naturalist in Italy (Pantheon, 1993).

  7. 7

    T. Sarah Peterson, Acquired Taste: The French Origins of Modern Cooking (Cornell University Press, 1994).

  8. 8

    Elizabeth David, Italian Food (1954; revised edition, Penguin, 1987), p.5.

  9. 9

    Elizabeth David, Spices, Salts, and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (Penguin, 1973), p.33.

  10. 10

    Italian Food, p.6.

  11. 11

    French Provincial Cooking (Penguin, 1986), p.xviii.

  12. 12

    French Provincial Cooking, p.xviii.

  13. 13

    Visser, Much Depends on Dinner, p.292.

  14. 14

    Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854; Shambala Books, 1992), pp. 231–233.

  15. 15

    Much Depends on Dinner, p.292.

  16. 16

    H.H. Lamb, Climate, History, and the Modern World, second edition (Routledge, 1995), pp. 211–241. My thanks to F. Sherwood Rowland for this reference.

  17. 17

    Uno Holmberg, Finno-Ugric [and] Siberian [Mythology], Mythology of All Races, Vol. 4 (Archaeological Institute of America/Marshall Jones Co., 1927), p.292.

  18. 18

    Lamb, Climate, History, and the Modern World, p.249.

  19. 19

    My thanks to Michael Bender for the following references: C. Lorius, J. Jouzel, D. Raynaud, J. Hansen, and H. Le Treut, “The ice-core record: climate sensitivity and future greenhouse warming,” Nature, No. 347 (September 13, 1990), pp. 139–145; Todd Sowers and Michael Bender, “Climate Records Covering the Last Deglaciation,” Science, No. 269 (July 14, 1995), pp. 210–214; L. G. Thompson, M. E. Davis, E. Mosley-Thompson and K-b. Liu, “Pre-Incan agricultural activity recorded in dust layers in two tropical ice cores,” Nature, No. 366 (December 22–29, 1988), pp. 763–765. See also Lamb, Climate, History, and the Modern World.

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