Susan J. Gilman Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Susan J. Gilman
Photo: Francois Bourru

Susan J. Gilman

An interview with Susan J. Gilman

Susan Gilman introduces her book The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and provides fun facts on the history of ice cream

Ever since 1984 when President Ronald Reagan designated July National Ice Cream Month, the delicious treat has had a secure place in the American cultural calendar. But few people know how closely tied the history of ice cream is to the major events of the 20th Century. Here are some fascinating facts about ice cream from Susan Jane Gilman, author of
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

  • No less than five different people claimed to have invented the ice cream cone at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Four of these claimants were Middle Eastern immigrants. One of them, Abe Doumar, called his invention "Syrian ice cream sandwiches." Using a waffle iron, he developed a cone machine after the fair, which he later donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

  • When the U.S. entered World War One, the U.S. government banned the manufacturing of sherbet and ices because of sugar shortages. However, the U.S. Food Administration classified ice cream as an "essential" health food so that it could still be produced during the war. This was the first time corn syrup, dried egg yolks, gums, and "alternative ingredients" were used on a massive scale in ice cream production.

  • The Temperance Movement proved to be an enormous boon for the American Ice Cream industry. Ice cream parlors sprang up as an alternative to saloons. In 1906, there were reportedly 7,000 soda fountains in New York City, one for every 535 people. Once Prohibition passed, this trend skyrocketed. What were tavern-owners to do with their now-illegal barrooms and beer halls? They converted them into ice cream parlors. In 1920, one Brooklyn brewery even began selling ice cream in place of beer at Coney Island to make up for its lost revenue. By 1929, 60% of the nation's drugstores had installed soda fountains.

  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Great Depression and the repeal of Prohibition in the 1930's were devastating for the ice cream industry. It even gave rise to "ice cream bootleggers," who produced a cheap, terrible product pumped full of air — that did not adhere to the government's minimum manufacturing requirements — and sold it under-the-table to ice cream outlets for less than the popular, mainstream brands.

  • To try to recoup their losses after the repeal of Prohibition, some ice cream manufacturers tried adding liquor to their ice cream. Others claimed that ice cream was a "protective food" that would help people fend off the common cold in winter. Still others urged eating ice cream for breakfast. After all, their advertising copy suggested, "It IS cream…" One businessman, J. O. Dahl, suggested "Reducing Diet Sundaes," made with fresh fruits and only a dollop of ice cream, to attract people trying to lose weight.

  • In World War Two, the United States government became the largest ice cream maker in history, producing 800 million gallons a year.  Most other countries could no longer produce ice cream, due to shortages of milk, sugar, and infrastructure. (Mussolini, meanwhile, banned ice cream in Italy outright; see below). But the U.S. military deemed ice cream "an essential item for troop morale" — and so it dedicated all available resources to manufacturing ice cream on a grand scale for the military.

  • In 1945 the U.S. Navy commissioned two "Ice Cream Barges" — dubbed "the world's first floating ice cream parlors." The ships' sole responsibility was to produce ice cream for the U.S. military. Their machines and crews pumped out almost 1,500 gallons every hour. The concrete hulled vessels (which cost over $1.1 million apiece) had no engine; they had to be towed across the Pacific by tugs and other ships. One was stationed at a secret naval base called Ulithi, approximately 1,300 miles south of Tokyo, a tiny atoll in the southern Pacific. For the duration of the war, this barge churned out up to 15,000 gallons of ice cream a day for distribution to troops across the Pacific theatre.

  • Even though Italy is thought to be the home of modern-day ice cream, during World War Two, Benito Mussolini declared that ice cream was "too American" and banned the sale of ice cream throughout Italy, accusing the Italian people of being a "mediocre race of good-for-nothings only capable of singing and eating ice cream."

  • When rationing was lifted after the war, Americans began consuming ice cream in record amounts – 20 quarts per person in 1946 alone. Today, the amount is even higher, though only slightly. Americans now consumer about 22 quarts per person per year.

  • In the late 1940s, before there was a polio vaccine, public health experts in America noted that polio cases increased in the hot months of summer. Since people naturally ate more ice cream and soft drinks in hot months, scientists jumped to the conclusion that sugar — and particularly ice cream — caused polio. Eliminating sweets was recommended as part of an anti-polio diet.  For several years, ice cream was erroneously believed to cause polio.

  • The first ice cream to be certified kosher was Carvel Ice Cream, founded by Thomas Carvelas, a Greek Orthodox immigrant.

  • Baskin-Robbins originally conceived of their famous "31 Flavors" so that they could offer a different flavor for every day of the month.

  • Häagen-Dazs was founded by Reuben and Rose Mattus, two first-generation American Jews living in the Bronx. Reuben Mattus invented the name "Häagen-Dazs," which is nonsensical, because he wanted something Danish-sounding to honor the Danes for defending their Jews during World War Two.

  • Only New Zealanders consume more ice cream than Americans — 27 quarts per person, per year.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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