"Celebrating Philly's Favorite Long-Term Frozen Assets at the Ice Cream Fest" By Carolyn Wyman
Last year’s Market ice cream festival rightly celebrated the 150th birthday of Bassetts Ice Cream, America’s oldest commercial ice cream maker and also the Market’s only surviving original tenant. But nothing comes from nothing.
This year the Ultimate Philadelphia Ice Cream Fest celebrates the French émigrés who first brought ice cream to Philadelphia in the 1700s, and the many other early local frozen treat makers and eaters who helped churn up an early market for Bassetts’ business. For instance, did you know that:
- While historians have pretty much discredited that story about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, they have actual cash receipts for fancy ice cream mold purchases our first president made.
- While living in Philly as secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson wrote of his frustration at having to send away to France for vanilla pods so he could enjoy vanilla ice cream.
Although Dolley Madison is famous for serving ice cream at the White House, she likely first served it while living here in Philadelphia before she was married.
Speaking of Dolly Madison:
Delicious ice cream made by one of her former cooks, August Johnson, here in Philly for both his own catering clients and several African-American-owned ice cream shops on South Street, made Johnson one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest African-American citizens in the early to mid-1800s.
Speaking of minority contributions to frozen treats: It was a Philadelphia woman named Nancy Johnson who in 1843 invented the kind of hand-cranked ice cream machine with dasher that home chefs use today. Before that ice cream was so difficult and time-consuming to make that it was mainly a dessert of rich guys like Washington and Jefferson, who had servants who could make it for them. Johnson’s invention, along with the invention of electricity and rail transport, paved the way for large-scale commercial production of ice cream for the masses by Bassetts and, within a few years, Breyers of Kensington, and dozens of other companies.
In fact, by the turn of the last century, Philadelphia was the ice cream capital of America, largely due to the quality of the cream and milk from the dairy farms in the surrounding farmland, and the head start local frozen treat makers got over businesses in younger cities.
You’ll learn this and more at the festival’s 1 p.m. talk about the history of ice cream making in Philly by Ryan and Eric Berley of Franklin Fountain. Other talks will focus on the history of ice cream novelties (at noon by David Adami of Uncle Dave’s Homemade Ice Cream) and water ice (at 3 p.m. by Rich Trotter of Rosati Italian Water Ice).
There will also be show-and-tell: The Berleys will be bringing a saw that was used to cut ice from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers essential to making and storing ice cream pre-electricity, as well as a precursor to Nancy Johnson’s ice cream machine. Roger Miller of Miller’s Twist will be demonstrating the use of a Johnson-style machine and selling the results. And at 2 p.m., sixth-generation Bassett family members Alex Bassett Strange, 20, and Eric Bassett, 18, will attempt to replicate the way their great-grandfather used to pack and decorate flower- and animal-shaped ice cream molds that graced banquet tables of old-money Philadelphians back in the day.
Making all this frozen-treat scholarship go down easy — in addition to the cups, cones and mini Thomas Jefferson ice cream sundaes (featuring ingredients our third president favored) — will be intermittent games, like ice cream shuffleboard (in which contestants attempt to slide a porcelain dish of ice cream down a table to a target, like Bassetts’ ice cream jerks used to slide dishes down the counter to customers) and an ice cream speed-eating contest (where the prize is the seemingly redundant more free ice cream).
Alex Bassett Strange and Eric Bassett will also be telling ice cream jokes, like:
Ice cream soda!
Ice cream soda who?
Ice cream soda people can hear me.
What do you get if you divide the circumference of a bowl of ice cream by its diameter?
Pi a la mode.
But come anyway.
Ultimate Philadelphia Ice Cream Festival, Sat., July 21, 10am to 4 p.m., pay as you go, Center Court.Posted on 07.17.12