The Scoop on Ice Cream’s French-American History

July 17 is National Ice Cream Day! The French are not the world’s top ice cream eaters. In fact, they barely consume 12 pints of it per person per year, compared with more than 40 in the United States, which is the world’s second leading market beaten only by New Zealand. Yet France has gone down in ice cream history in America. Thomas Jefferson was a huge fan, and French ice cream has been enshrined in U.S. law since 1977.
© Ilya Ilford

Vanilla, strawberry, cookies and cream, honey, hazelnut, mint chocolate chip. Customers look lovingly over the different flavors at Van Leeuwen, an artisanal ice cream shop founded in New York in 2008 which has since spread to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and California. Everyone’s gaze fixes on the “French ice cream” label featured on most of the pastel-colored pints. Some may think this is a ploy by the all-American brand to capitalize on the famous French touch. But that’s only half the story…

“The term ‘French’ means that the recipe uses eggs,” says the person at the counter of the shop in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration actually demands that any iced dessert containing more than 1.4% egg yolk and 10% milk fat must be labeled as “French ice cream.” (“Frozen custard” and “French custard ice cream” are also accepted.) And Van Leeuwen uses “twice as many egg yolks” as its competitors Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs.

© Yves Damin
© Yves Damin

The egg yolk in the so-called French recipe lends the ice cream a richer texture and a more complex flavor than American or Philadelphia-style ice creams, which only contain cream (or milk) and sugar. (The sweeter the ice cream, the more it becomes malleable – or scoopable, to use the industry term.) Eggs are also natural emulsifiers, as the lecithin in the yolk stabilizes the mixture and prevents water and fat in the milk or cream from separating, much like vinegar and oil do in salad dressings.

This is an ancient process. In his 1692 book, Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures, les liqueurs et les fruits, the chef (and inventor of the crème brûlée) François Massialot provided a recipe for ice cream with a quart of sweet cream and as much milk, a half-pound of sugar, and three egg yolks. The mixture was then boiled, poured into a mold, and frozen for three hours. What the French chef, who worked for Louis XIV’s brother, referred to as fromage à l’angloise in Old French was in fact a frozen custard (known today in French as crème anglaise) – hence the term now used in the United States.

A Legendary Dessert

The true origins of ice cream are subject to debate. Many say that the first recipes arrived in Marco Polo’s luggage when he returned from China in the 13th century. Others claim that the Florentine Catherine de’ Medici, who married the future French king Henri II in 1533, popularized sorbets in France. And some believe that the first place to serve ice cream was Le Procope, a café opened in Paris in 1686 and frequented by Benjamin Franklin and the Enlightenment philosophers. It’s hard to say which story is true. But one thing is certain: Three recipe books of iced desserts were published in France between 1750 and 1768. In L’Art de bien faire les glaces d’office, a certain M. Emy describes in detail how to use a bain-marie of water and salt (or saltpeter) to set the mixture. He also discusses ice houses, underground spaces where blocks of ice collected in winter were stored before the advent of electric refrigerators. Throughout the rest of the book, the officier (a term used to describe a servant working in the kitchens during France’s Ancien Régime) shares some fifty other recipes, including ice creams flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, pistachio, and cacao, and sorbets made with strawberry, pineapple, blackcurrant, peach, pomegranate, and redcurrant!

© Yves Damin

Around the same time, an American notable by the name of William Black discovered frozen custard at a dinner hosted by the governor of Annapolis, in the future state of Maryland. “A dessert no less curious” but which one can “eat most deliciously,” he wrote in his journal on Saturday, May 19, 1744. Ice cream most likely arrived in America with the first settlers, but this is the first record of some form of the dessert in the United States. Had Thomas Jefferson tasted ice cream before moving to France? His private writings reveal nothing, but it seems the third president of the United States fell in love with it in Paris, where he worked as ambassador for the fledgling American republic from 1785 to 1789.

At the Hôtel de Langeac, his residence at 92 Avenue des Champs-Elysées, he became friends with the maître d’hôtel Adrien Petit. Impressed by his culinary skills, the author of the Declaration of Independence even took the time to make a note of his recipe for vanilla ice cream! The hand-written document in English is kept at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and recommends two bottles of “good cream,” six egg yolks, a half-pound of sugar, and a stick of vanilla. The recipe was adapted in 1938 by historian Marie Kimball, and is still made today by bloggers, YouTubers, and amateur pastry chefs.

French Ice Cream at the White House

When Jefferson left Paris, he took 86 crates, trunks, and bales along with him. His luggage included several busts of himself, Voltaire, Turgot, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and John Paul Jones, cast by his sculptor friend Jean-Antoine Houdon, a portrait of Lafayette by Joseph Boze, which is currently part of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection in Boston, a harpsichord, a copying press, 35 pounds of nectarines, 10 pounds of mustard, 312 bottles of wine… and four ice cream molds! These very same molds were actually part of a White House inventory drawn up in 1809.

© Yves Damin
© Yves Damin

Thanks to Jefferson, French ice cream boomed in the United States. The presidential chef Honoré Julien would delight guests with puff pastry filled with ice cream, and later opened his own catering business in Washington D.C. Ads for French ice cream abounded in newspapers in Indianapolis, New York, Nashville, and Sacramento, and were soon followed by others for rotary ice cream freezers manufactured in France. The descendants of these machines, the now-renowned “French pots,” are still turning at Greater’s, an ice cream factory in Cincinnati that celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2020.

French ice cream is still synonymous with quality and expertise. “Historically, eggs were used to stabilize the preparation, but that’s no longer necessary. There are now other natural ingredients such as carob powder and guar gum, which are very popular in vegan recipes,” says Lucienne Duforets. The Houston-based French woman is an ice cream expert. She founded the Bellefontaine artisanal ice creamery in 2017, named after the little village in the Val d’Oise département where she grew up, and sells her products in some 200 restaurants and stores across Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. “The current trend is leaning towards using fewer eggs in the recipe, but French tradition is still going strong in the United States!”

Thomas Jefferson’s (Modernized) Vanilla Ice Cream Recipe

Beat the yolks of 6 eggs until thick and lemon colored. Add, gradually, 1 cup of sugar and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil 1 quart of cream and pour slowly on the egg mixture. Put in top of double boiler and when it thickens, remove and strain through a fine sieve into a bowl. When cool add 2 teaspoonfuls of vanilla. Freeze, as usual, with one part of salt to three parts of ice. Place in a mold, pack in ice and salt for several hours. For electric refrigerators, follow usual direction, but stir frequently.

Abstracted from Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book by Marie Kimball, originally published by Garrett & Massie in 1938.


Article published in the August 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.