Birth of the cool: The story behind the ice cream sandwich, an icon at 120
I am standing in the middle of a room that looks like a cross between a Rube Goldberg machine and Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. There are networks of silver pipes overhead, shiny vats of citric acid and huge sacks of sweet whey, dials and switches and hoppers where hot-pink peppermint candy is crushed into bits. Conveyor belts ferry tubs and boxes and the containers called scrounds. Or is it squrounds? There is some debate over the spelling, but it’s pronounced the same either way. It describes the round-cornered square cartons that are particular to the ice cream trade.
This is the whirring, clicking, clanking, buzzing heart of the HP Hood Ice Cream Plant, a long, squat brick building with a flagpole out front and the words “Ice Cream Division” spelled in white curlicue letters along one side. It’s one of the original Hood plants, here since the early ’60s. “There aren’t too many of those left,” says plant manager Peter Fabbri. “It’s one of the few.”
In this 10,000-square-foot space, about 85 employees produce all kinds of goodness: the 60 or so Hood ice cream and sherbet flavors, the premium brand Brigham’s, Lactaid ice cream (Hood has an exclusive licensing arrangement), oat milk, and more.
I’m here for the ice cream sandwiches. Aug. 2 is National Ice Cream Sandwich Day, surely a holiday worth celebrating. And this year marks the ice cream sandwich’s 120th birthday. Or maybe it doesn’t. Many date the novelty (as single-serving frozen treats are called) to 1899, but such things are hard to pinpoint.
“What I know is that initially they were sold on the Bowery in New York by street vendors,” says author Jeri Quinzio, whose books include “Dessert: A Tale of Happy Endings” and “Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making.” These peddlers sold something called “hokey pokeys,” small slabs of ice cream that were placed between two pieces of paper to make them easier to hold. “That was messy and not very convenient, so somebody came up with the idea of using crackers or cookies.”
Written mentions of the treat start cropping up around the turn of the century. “It was written about a lot in newspapers,” Quinzio says. “This was quite the innovation. It sold for a penny, and you had to have a penny because they were making them so fast they didn’t have time to make change.”
In 1899, she says, the New York Mail and Express ran a story headlined “A New Sandwich.” “There are ham sandwiches and salmon sandwiches and cheese sandwiches and several other kinds of sandwiches,” it began, “but the latest is the ice-cream sandwich. As a new fad the ice cream sandwich might have made thousands of dollars for its inventor had the novelty been launched by a well-known caterer, but strangely enough the ice-cream sandwich made its advent in an humble Bowery push-cart.”
Well la-di-da. The street vendors catered to the hoi polloi, while the upper-class patronized fancy confectioners. But soon enough, everyone was standing in line to try the Cronut of the 1900s. A New York Sun story that ran Aug. 19 of that year stated that on Wall Street, “the brokers themselves got to buying ice cream sandwiches and eating them in a democratic fashion side by side on the sidewalk with the messengers and the office boys.” Restaurants then began serving upscale versions made with sponge cake and the like. “Elite confectioners started using plates and forks in a dainty fashion, and saying [their sandwiches were] so much better than the ones sold on the street,” Quinzio says.
(There is an oft-repeated story that a guy named Jerry Newberg invented the vanilla-and-chocolate version we know today and sold it at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. I know this to be perhaps not quite accurate because I spoke with Newberg, along with son Bruce and grandson Matt, who were visiting the 91-year-old. It’s true he did sell ice cream. He would zip around on a scooter selling the sandwiches for a nickel. “Ice cream, get your ice cream here,” he trumpets into the phone: He’s still got it. He was also a radio announcer. He also called square dances. He lost his arm in a car accident when he was 3, so he couldn’t go into the service. “I tried everything at least once, which includes the girls,” he says. He believes he invented the ice cream sandwich, so, Matt tells me, “as an ode to my grandfather, I cited him as one of the inventors in Wikipedia.” This then made its way into plenty of articles and a couple of books as fact. “We’re not sure he’s actually the inventor,” Matt says, “but we call him that because we love him.”)
The ice cream sandwich’s trajectory, from humble treat of the masses to elevated version for the elite, sounds familiar. Here we have the classic ice cream sandwich, as exemplified by Hood’s offering: an oblong of vanilla ice cream between two rectangular chocolate cookies neatly stippled with holes. All is as it should be. There is tradition here. There is ritual. Are you a biter? Or do you linger, licking around the edges so the ice cream grows smaller and smaller and the cookies’ edges finally collapse around it? However we choose to live our ice cream sandwich-consuming lives, we all meet the same end: sucking sticky cookie residue off our fingertips after everything else is gone. Thus it has been all of our lives — visiting the ice cream truck, at camp, on hot evenings at dusk when the fireflies start to come out. And thus it should always be.
Yet we take a completely perfect product — affordable, delicious, already inhabiting its own ideal form — and begin to riff on it. In 2016, market-research firm Mintel declared the ice cream sandwich the year’s “Hot Trend in Indulgence.” Chief among the reasons: social media. Ice cream sandwiches are deeply photogenic, and the groovier they become, the more we want to post them.
And so we get delicious innovation. We get the gleeful, rainbow-sprinkled excess of Blackbird Doughnuts’ made-to-order, soft serve-filled rounds: Pick any doughnut you like, then choose vanilla, chocolate, or swirl. (Last week Krispy Kreme announced the introduction of scoop sandwiches, doughnut-infused ice cream inside a sliced doughnut with customizable toppings. Slow to the punch.) We get childhood reconjured in Gracie’s Ice Cream’s version, vanilla pressed between marshmallow treats made with Fruity Pebbles or Cocoa Pebbles. We get food trucks such as the Cookie Monstah and Frozen Hoagies that troll the city’s streets plying us with frozen desserts. And we get to watch pastry chefs run with it on restaurant menus: macaron ice cream sandwiches at Yvonne’s, a chocolate cookie and mint ice cream sandwich with bitter poppy caramel on a menu honoring nonconformist winemakers at Forage.
These are pure delights. But are they really ice cream sandwiches? Terminology matters. Remember the 2006 case that hinged on the definition of “sandwich”? Burritos, tacos, and quesadillas: not sandwiches, ruled the judge, paving the way for a Qdoba to open in a Shrewsbury shopping center despite the objections of the Panera that was already there. As cookbook author Chrissy Teigen once tweeted, “Ice cream sandwiches made with cookies are garbage. The only ice cream sandwich should be the rectangular blocks with chocolate cakey bread with holes. This is not an opinion, it is a fact.”
There’s no need to mess with a classic. Ice cream sandwiches are doing fine. Last year Hood sold more than 2 million boxes. The frozen-novelty category is seeing an increase in growth. “In 2018, frozen novelties reached $5.8 billion, a 4.1% increase over the prior year,” according to information provided by Mintel’s Beth Bloom, associate director of food and drink reports. “Comparatively, traditional ice cream remained largely flat.” In 2021, Mintel predicts, the frozen novelties segment will reach $6.4 billion, about 27 percent more than in 2018.
Why are we enamored with such a throwback? Precisely because it is one. “Nostalgia has always been part of the food landscape,” says Robertson Allen, senior consultant at the Hartman Group, which focuses on consumer behavior in the food and beverage market. “We’re having a nostalgic moment now for sure. There’s a turn to comfort foods in times of uncertainty. There’s political uncertainty for a lot of people. Climate change is definitely a thing that’s on more folks’ radar now, and people are feeling uncertain about what to do about it. The big one is economic uncertainty. Millennials especially are feeling a lot more strapped economically.”
But we can’t cling to the past forever. Even Hood, unusually nimble for company started in 1846, is mixing things up. It now makes mini ice cream sandwiches, cookies ’n’ cream ice cream sandwiches, mint chip ice cream sandwiches, unicorn confetti ice cream sandwiches. “It tastes just like Froot Loops,” Fabbri says of the last.
Back on the floor of the HP Hood Ice Cream Plant, wearing hairnets and hardhats and ear protection, we head for the ice cream sandwich line. The ice cream goes through a rectangular pipe, which molds it into the appropriate shape. As it comes out of the pipe, two cookies surround the ice cream. It’s moving so fast that the sandwich breaks cleanly off, no need for slicing. Then it gets wrapped, sealed, and sent down a conveyor for boxing. In a day of production, the facility can turn out about 100,000 sandwiches.
“There are so many ice cream fads out there,” Fabbri says. “In my mind, all these things are here today, gone tomorrow. One thing that’s always going to be here is ice cream.”
He reaches out, plucks a newborn ice cream sandwich off the line, and hands it to me. I open the wrapper. The ice cream is soft. The cookies are intensely crunchy. You can’t eat a just-made ice cream sandwich the way you would one from the store. If you bite right in, the filling will squirt out the sides. Instead, you have to break off a piece of the cookie and scoop out the ice cream.
It’s so delicious. It’s so fresh. But, forgive me, I’d rather have the soggy-sided, freezer-aged ice cream sandwich we all know and love. It doesn’t count unless you get your hands dirty.