Stop Thanking Thomas Jefferson for Inventing Ice Cream

Thomas Jefferson did not invent ice cream, and he wasn't even the first American to bring it stateside. But he did help popularize it, thanks to the culinary efforts of his household staff.

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Jun 22 2016, 8:00pm

Photo vis Flickr user chocopops

Today, ice cream is as commonplace as water in the United States. But imagine a time—the early 1700s—when Americans scarcely knew what ice cream was. Thanks in part to Thomas Jefferson, however, we have been enjoying the creamy frozen treat since the late 18th century.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Jefferson did not invent ice cream, and he wasn't even the first American to bring it stateside. But he did enjoy it immensely when he was the minister plenipotentiary in Paris from 1784 to 1789, and he helped make it mainstream in the US by serving it at the President's House on at least six occasions, according to records.

"He is one of several folks who are instrumental in popularizing ice cream," says food historian Michael Twitty. "It's not that no one had ever had ice cream in America before, it's just that he had the influence to popularize it on a different level."

How do we know Jefferson loved ice cream so much? For starters, he had several ice molds shipped back with his stuff from France, and the tools were also listed in the inventory of his kitchens at Monticello and the President's House in 1809.

He also left a recipe—now found in the Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress—which happens to be the first recorded ice cream recipe in America. Written in his meticulous script, the recipe calls for six egg yolks, a half-pound of sugar, two bottles of good cream, and one vanilla bean to be combined, boiled, and then placed in a sabottiere, the inner canister that was placed in a bucket of ice and salt and then turned periodically—essentially, an ice cream maker.

But how likely is it that Jefferson actually created the recipe, even though he's definitely the one that wrote it down? Turns out, not very. Some think it may have come from Adrien Petit, Jefferson's French butler. And Twitty is certain Jefferson's slave and then emancipated chef James Hemings (brother to Sally, Jefferson's slave and purported mother to several of the President's bastard children) had a lot to do with it. Jefferson brought James to France with him for the express purpose of getting him trained in French cooking, according to Lucia Stanton's Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello.

"James got a world-class culinary education in France and he learned from the same people who are cooking for the last monarchy in France," says Twitty. "And he is literate. He learned French while he was there, he's writing down things that he masters in a way that Jefferson never did—in French."

So it's likely that James learned how to make ice cream in France and then made it for Jefferson and his wife Martha, both in France and upon their return, and at the President's House, where he cooked for one summer after he was emancipated.

Twitty points out that, more often than not, Jefferson gets more credit than he deserves with regard to food.

"Actually, all he was doing was sharing culinary fashions he had learned in his travels, and James was an essential part of that process when he came back," says Twitty. "This is an opportunity to talk about Thomas Jefferson as a great gourmet, which he was, but it's also the opportunity to talk about the African-American cooks who were integral in transforming the American diet."

Today, you can indulge in ice cream made from the recipe ascribed to Jefferson at an appropriately presidential place: Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary since its completion. Lloyd Shelton, food and beverage manager of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, who heads the concessions at the national memorial, decided to serve it after discovering a sign from the 1950s created by the original concessionaire at the park.

"It read, 'Thomas Jefferson brought ice cream to America,'" recalls Shelton. "This is one of those fun facts—or myths, as it turns out—that was exciting for us because we are always looking for ways to assist the National Park Service in fulfilling their interpretive mission."

After doing some research, Shelton created a poster and then cards with the original recipe and an explanation of its connection with Jefferson. They were so popular with guests that he eventually decided to recreate the recipe to sell at the memorial.

He reached out to several local dairy farms to make an ice cream that was as close to the written recipe as possible. Pride Dairy, a family-run company in Bottineau, North Dakota, accepted the challenge.

"The ice cream is the same as they would've eaten in the 1780s, with the exception that the milk is pasteurized," says Shelton, adding that the recipe has also been adjusted to account for making it in bulk. Pride Dairy even sources its vanilla beans from Madagascar, the most likely place that the Jefferson household would've gotten them from at the time.

Since they began serving it three years ago, Pride Dairy has produced more than 10,000 gallons for the Memorial Ice Cream Shop at Mt. Rushmore and the shop estimates they've sold more than 100,000 ice cream cones.

"The Thomas Jefferson Ice Cream really provides the visitor with the ability to taste history," says Shelton.

And even if that history is contested, the ice cream still tastes just as sweet.