Just like George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree, Thomas Jefferson didn’t bring ice cream to America, despite the oft-repeated claim.
Indeed, the first known evidence of ice cream being served in American comes more than 40 years before Jefferson allegedly returned from Paris with the know-how to make a creamy sweet concoction that Americans had never before tasted.
But Jefferson can be credited with one small scoop of American ice cream history: He was the first American to write down the recipe, says Anna Berkes, a research librarian at Monticello.
According to Berkes, Jefferson’s hand-written recipe for a vanilla ice cream, dating to the 1780s and now housed in the Library of Congress, was one of only 11 recipes Jefferson was smitten enough with to write down himself.
“It’s the only recipe for ice cream he wrote that is known to survive,” Berkes says. “It’s possible there were others, but we can’t know for sure.”
Berkes says Jefferson can also be credited with helping to popularize the dish, having it served several times at the White House while he was President. It made enough of an impression that guests often wrote home to friends and family about the dish.
Jefferson undoubtedly learned of the recipe while in France. An inventory of the items he brought back with him, packed in 86 crates, include “quatre moule a glasse”—four ice molds, which were used to make ice cream.
Ice cream in the 1700s was made a bit differently than today, but still had some of the same basic ingredients, Berkes says. Jefferson’s recipe called for cream, eggs, sugar and vanilla and salt.
Jefferson’s instructions were to essentially mix the eggs and sugar, then boil the cream and vanilla together in a casserole dish before adding the egg mixture to it.
After heating up the batter again, he wrote it should be removed from the heat and strained “thro’ a towel” before being placed in a sabotiere, a sort of primitive ice cream churn that was essentially a closed bucket inside a bucket of ice.
Jefferson wrote that a handful of salt should be added to the batter before putting it in ice, and that the ice cream should be turned “from time to time to detach the ice from the sides.”
Ice at Monticello would have been sourced from the Rivanna River and placed in the ice house, Berkes says. It usually lasted until the following October, meaning that ice cream could be served when it is most welcome: during hot summer months.
Vanilla wasn’t the only ice cream flavor late 18th century Americans found pleasing to the palette. Other recipes from the era include burnt filbert, tomato and oyster, which Berkes say was likely “similar to frozen clam chowder.”