Ice cream may feel like an essential piece of summertime Americana, but before Mr. Softee trucks and grocery store freezer aisles, before soda shops and gelaterias, before European settlers made their way to North America, ice cream was being made in Mexico. As Fany Gerson tells us in her new book, Mexican Ice Cream, it all started with the Teotihuacanos—a civilization in what is now San Juan.
“The first frozen treats were made from snow gathered from the top of the Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes,” Gerson says. The snow would be mixed with mashed fruit and sometimes sweetened with honey. Since the snow had to be retrieved from the tops of volcanoes and kept insulated to prevent it from melting, the treat was reserved for emperors and others in power.
Centuries later, after ice became a readily available commodity and Italian immigrants began to arrive in Mexico with recipes for gelato, a new era of Mexican ice cream was born—closer to the ice cream we’re used to in the United States, but still possessing its own identity. For one, instead of the big, industrial ice cream machines that many American restaurants and ice cream shops use to churn their ice cream, many traditional businesses in Mexico churn the ice cream by hand, in huge metal canisters called garrafas. The canisters are filled with the ice cream base and placed inside of wooden barrels full of ice and salt, and then it’s someone’s job to stir the ice cream with a large wooden paddle as it slowly freezes.
This technique gives the ice cream a unique texture. “Mexican ice cream is closer to gelato, as it has less fat and air than American style,” Gerson says. Unlike the Ben & Jerry’s we’re used to, ice cream in Mexico also places more stress on the flavoring agents, like chocolate, cinnamon, and fruit, and less emphasis on mix-ins like candies and cookies. And finally, Gerson points out, fresh, seasonal sorbet, or nieves de agua, is all over the place. “This is mostly because of the incredible abundance of fruit,” she says.