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WORDBIRTH, a column by Jack Karasch

ICE CREAM became part of our written language in 1769. Ice comes from Old Teutonic and Friesian words. Cream is descended from chrism, or the holy oil used in religious anointing.

The creators of this most popular dessert were the Chinese, around four thousand years ago. Theirs wasn't a smooth and creamy treat, but more of a pasty textured ice milk.

Its creation shortly followed the milking of farm animals in ancient China. A real treasure among the elite of Chinese society, it consisted of overcooked rice, spices, and milk. All of it was packed in snow to harden.

Fruit ices and other frozen dishes were also developed.

It is said the Emperor Nero sent swift runners to bring snow from the mountains so fruit ices could be made for him. But Nero's secret recipe was lost when the barbarian hordes invaded Rome and was not to surface again until the thirteenth century. At that time many different types of iced desserts were pedaled by pushcart on the streets of Italy's major cities.

Was it Marco Polo or Bernardo Buontalenti, a confectioner from Tuscany, who brought ice cream back to Europe? Historians are divided.

Its return was certainly greeted with instant enthusiasm. Recipes were safeguarded by chefs of wealthy families. Only the rich could pay the costs of storing winter ice underground for its concoction. Only wealthy palates tasted such delights. So treasured was it that Charles I is said to have put a French ice-cream maker to death because he feared his favorite recipe might leak out to others.

When Catherine de Medici married into French royalty in 1533, she wowed them with a different ice served daily for an entire month, thereby demonstrating the sophistication of Italian culinary arts. She even introduced a slightly softer dessert made from sweetened cream, probably the first true example of the ice-cream we know today.

Then around 1565 a Spanish physician named Villafranca discovered salt- peter, when added, forced snow to absorb any surrounding heat, and thus caused the ice-cream within to freeze much more quickly.

By 1870 Italian immigrants had spread throughout the continent vending their ices and ice creams. In Britain children called him the "hokey pokey" man from the vendor's cry of "Ecco un poco" or "here's a little."

Ice-cream probably came to America in the 1600s. We know George Washington had two ice cream freezers installed at Mount Vernon.

Personally, one of the things I remember most about my childhood in Now York and miss most here on the west coast, are those delicious and refreshing Italian ices.

Another recollection is the daily summer visit of the Good Humor man on our block in Long Island. Harry Burt of Ohio was responsible for marketing the first chocolate-covered vanilla ice-cream on a stick. He called it the "Good Humor Sucker."

Today's ice-cream (other than the natural variety) has fifty percent air beaten into it with cheap thickeners. There are hundreds of artificial flavors, colors, smoothers, improvers and other chemicals added. Some of these chemicals are elsewhere used in paint removers, solvents, and anti- freezes.

An argument for Haagan Dass or the home-made variety? You be the judge.

Get in touch with Jack Karasch at jackarasch@juno.com The next word is: Hoax
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