Americans eat more ice cream than anyone else in the world, with an average of 48 pints per person consumed each year. Although we eat the most ice cream, the history of the sweet frozen confection is much older than our country. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.).
The emperors of the Tang Dynasty are thought to be the first to eat “a frozen milk-like confection.” Yet that version was made with cow, goat or buffalo milk that was mixed with flour and camphor, then frozen. Fast-forward to the 17th century when Antonio Latini, a man working for a Spanish Viceroy in Naples, created a milk-based sorbet, which most culinary historians consider the first “official” ice cream.
Although the bulk of ice cream’s history in the western world has been imbued with vanilla, chocolate and fruit, it almost seems as if we're coming full circle to the earliest incarnations. Although gourmet buffalo milk and camphor ice cream hasn’t turned up on any artisan parlor menus (yet), we’ve actually become much weirder.
Welcome to the world of extreme ice cream, where vanilla is shunned and the most outlandish flavors reign supreme.
1. Foie gras
Although artisanal ice cream shop Humphry Slocombe in San Francisco, California, may be known for its beloved signature flavor, Secret Breakfast (a NSFW blend of bourbon and corn flakes, with so much bourbon that it doesn’t achieve a solid freeze) the shop has no shortage of even wilder flavors from which to choose. Jumping off the bacon bandwagon, Humphry Slocombe has branched out with a very popular Boccalone Prosciutto flavor and even one made with foie gras; because when cream, sugar and egg yolks aren’t enough, why not add some liver from a fattened bird?
2. Chocolate-covered cicada
When life gives you cicadas (many, many cicadas), make cicada ice cream! Such was the idea at Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream in Colombia, Missouri. Employees collected the big bugs from their backyards, removed the wings and dipped them in brown sugar and milk chocolate to add that special je ne sais quoi that only bits of candied insects can bring to ice cream. Customers loved it; the public health officials? Not so much.
3. Cereal milk
Momofuku Milk Bar's cereal milk is like soft serve (and can come with cereal). (Photo: Momofuku Milk Bar/Facebook)
The dessert and pastry branch of David Chang’s Momofuku empire in New York City, Momofuku Milk Bar, is known for its beautiful cakes and irreverent desserts. Among the most popular ice creams is the “cereal milk” soft serve that tastes like … cereal milk. With hints of corn flakes and sugar, everyone knows that the leftover milk after the cereal is gone is the best part of breakfast anyway.
4. Cheddar cheese
The latest “baby” of Jon Snyder, who sold his successful Ciao Bella Gelato Company in 1989, il laboratorio del gelato (affectionately known as “the Lab”) makes small batches of high-end ice cream and offers chefs and caterers the opportunity to work with the company on custom flavors for their menus. The café in Manhattan’s Lower East Side offers a rotating assortment of 48 flavors each day, including unique selections like tarragon pink pepper, avocado, basil and butternut squash. But it’s the cheddar cheese ice cream that takes the cake – or is that the pie? Because if you’ve ever had the pleasure of cheddar cheese on apple (or pear) pie, you might agree that cheddar cheese ice cream may be the best invention ever.
Sundaes and Cones in New York City is home to homemade ice creams that run the gamut from traditional to, um, exotic (for Western palates, at least). Taro root, avocado, black sesame and corn all stand out; but the spicy wasabi may be the most unusual of the lot; raw fish not included.
It’s a toss up for the strangest flavor coming from Max & Mina's Home Made Ice Cream in Queens, New York. The lox flavor – yes, smoked salmon-tinged ice cream – gets plenty of attention, as does the beer flavor. But for all-out incongruity, the prize must be awarded to their pizza ice cream. It’s comprised of an egg yolk base flavored with garlic, oregano, cheese, and tomatoes; it’s dinner and dessert all in one.
7. Bacon and olive
While bacon-mania refuses to die, basic bacon ice cream doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch; it could even be considered “normal” at this point. But the bacon ice cream sandwich from Washington D.C.’s CreamCycle stands out for a few reasons. First, the company peddles its products by pedal; a fleet of freezer-equipped bicycles cruises the city putting a new spin on the ice cream truck. Second, the flavors are wonderfully whacky: Banana Java Habanero blends banana habanero ice cream with a coffee cookie while Corn Maple envelops corn ice cream with a maple cornbread cookie. For the Bacon and Olive, a bacon cookie sandwiches olive oil ice cream swirled with bacon bits.
8. Ghost Pepper
You sign waivers when you go skydiving or bungee jumping, but for ordering an ice cream cone? The answer is “yes” if you are ordering the Ghost Pepper Ice Cream from The Ice Cream Store in Rehoboth, Delaware. This gasp-inducing confection starts with the company’s spicy Scorpion Sting ice cream (which is topped with a real scorpion), to which a variety of lethal hot sauces have been added, plus some fresh Ghost Pepper mash. Also known as Bhut Jolokia, the Ghost Pepper was deemed the world’s hottest pepper by Guinness World Records in 2007, and has been weaponized in India for use in hand grenades. Lick at your own risk.
9. Squid ink with fish eggs
The ice cream case at Ramekin is packed with colorful choices, sometimes even including squid ink. (Photo: Ramekin)
Although Los Angeles dessert spot Ramekin is generally home to more predictable flavors, they’ve been known to push the envelope from time to time. One such time was when they recently presented a collection of savory ice creams that included a parmesan ice cream with lemon zest, dehydrated olives, chipotle infused olive oil, Manzanilla sherry with pink chive blossoms, sprinkled with flower blossoms. And even more avant-garde that that: Tequila squid ink ice cream topped with red fish eggs, passion fruit, and coffee infused with the bitter artichoke aperitif, Cynar. Cheers?
10. Beer and bar nuts
From the company that brought us Influenza RX Sorbet — a mix of honey, ginger, orange and lemon juices, bourbon and cayenne pepper — comes another frozen treat to cure that which ails you: Yazoo Sue with Rosemary Bar Nuts ice cream. For this kooky concoction, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams starts with a cherry wood-smoked porter beer (made by Nashville's Yazoo Brewing Company) and adds savory "bar nuts" comprised of peanuts, pecans, and almonds dusted with rosemary, brown sugar, and cayenne. One can almost hear the jukebox playing in the background...