If you ask Google for information on “oyster ice-cream”, it points you to a lot of references. The most superficial examination however, shows that almost all of these repeat the same tale almost word for word – that this was one of Mark Twain’s favourite dishes.
That Twain was fond of oysters is not, I think, in doubt. That oyster ice-cream was one of his favourite ways to eat the oyster, is, I think, very doubtful indeed. I have been unable (in an admittedly brief search) to find any mention of oyster ice-cream in connection with Twain at all. The famous list of foods for which he was pining after a long winter tour of Europe in 1879, which he detailed in A Tramp Abroad (1880) mentions several oyster dishes, and ‘Iced sweet milk’, but not ice-cream as such.
Here is the list:
It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one--a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive--as follows:
Radishes. Baked apples, with cream
Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs.
American coffee, with real cream.
Fried chicken, Southern style.
Broiled chicken, American style.
Hot biscuits, Southern style.
Hot wheat-bread, Southern style.
Hot buckwheat cakes.
American toast. Clear maple syrup.
Virginia bacon, broiled.
Blue points, on the half shell.
San Francisco mussels, steamed.
Oyster soup. Clam Soup.
Philadelphia Terapin soup.
Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.
Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad.
Brook trout, from Sierra Nevadas.
Lake trout, from Tahoe.
Sheep-head and croakers, from New Orleans.
Black bass from the Mississippi.
American roast beef.
Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style.
Cranberry sauce. Celery.
Roast wild turkey. Woodcock.
Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore.
Prairie chickens, from Illinois.
Missouri partridges, broiled.
Boston bacon and beans.
Bacon and greens, Southern style.
Hominy. Boiled onions. Turnips.
Pumpkin. Squash. Asparagus.
Butter beans. Sweet potatoes.
Lettuce. Succotash. String beans.
Mashed potatoes. Catsup.
Boiled potatoes, in their skins.
New potatoes, minus the skins.
Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern style, served hot.
Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or vinegar. Stewed tomatoes.
Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper.
Green corn, on the ear.
Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Southern style.
Hot hoe-cake, Southern style.
Hot egg-bread, Southern style.
Hot light-bread, Southern style.
Buttermilk. Iced sweet milk.
Apple dumplings, with real cream.
Apple pie. Apple fritters.
Apple puffs, Southern style.
Peach cobbler, Southern style
Peach pie. American mince pie.
Pumpkin pie. Squash pie.
All sorts of American pastry.
Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries which are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way. Ice-water - not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.
That there were frozen oyster dishes at the time is not in doubt. Mary Randolph, in The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook (Baltimore, 1838) gives a recipe for ‘Oyster Cream’ based on her Oyster Soup recipe:
Make a rich soup (see directions for oyster soup,) strain it from the oysters, and freeze it.
Wash and drain two quarts of oysters, put them on with three quarts of water, three onions chopped up, two or three slices of lean ham, pepper and salt; boil it till reduced one-half, strain it through a sieve, return the liquid into the pot, put in one quart of fresh oysters, boil it till they are sufficiently done, and thicken the soup with four spoonsful of flour, two gills of rich cream, and the yelks of six new laid eggs beaten well; boil it a few minutes after the thickening is put in. Take care that it does not curdle, and that the flour is not in lumps; serve it up with the last oysters that were put in. If the flavour of thyme be agreeable, you may put in a little, but take care that it does not boil in it long enough to discolour the soup.
This is surely not ice-cream, but very chilled soup?
What would make it ice-cream? A lot of sugar, surely?
There are plenty of precedents for ‘savoury’ ice-creams. One famous version has featured on this blog before, and I give it to you again as it fits well into this discussion:
Take six eggs, half a pint of syrup and a pint of cream; put them into a stewpan and boil them until it begins to thicken; then rasp three ounces of parmesan cheese; mix the whole well together and pass it through a sieve, then freeze it according to custom.
The Cook's Dictionary and House-keeper's Directory … by Richard Dolby (1830)
And the following recipe, from the famous chef Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico’s in New York, is not only asparagus flavoured, but asparagus coloured and shaped. How delightful. If only I could find an asparagus ice-cream mould, I might be tempted to make this.
ASPARAGUS (Asperges) [ICE]
Cook one pound of asparagus tips in plenty of unsalted water; drain and lay them in a tinned basin with ten egg-yolks and twelve ounces of sugar; mix thoroughly, incorporating a pint of boiling milk; cook this preparation without allowing to boil, and put aside to cool, then add a pint of cream; color a third part to a pale green; strain through a sieve, and freeze the parts separately. With this ice fill some asparagus-shaped molds, the stalks or third part to be of the green ice, and the remainder white. Freeze the molds for half an hour, unmold, tie in bunches of three with a pink ribbon, and dress on napkins. Serve separately a sauce made of vanilla ice cream (No. 3458), whipped cream (No. 50) and maraschino. Asparagus can also be imitated by filling the molds with pistachio (No. 3454) and vanilla ice cream (No. 3458), and serving the same as the above.
The Epicurean, Charles Ranhofer (New York, 1894)
Quotation for the Day.
“Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos.”