What Adam Smith Ate: Ice Cream

what adam smith ate farming ice cream

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

While we don’t know if Adam Smith had a favorite flavor of ice cream, we do know that it was a popular treat in his circle. James Boswell writes that in 1775 he had “an excellent supper” at David Hume’s home in Edinburgh with “three sorts of ice creams,” an incredible luxury for the time.  
Grains and other foodstuffs play a large role in Adam Smith’s discussions of how economies work. So far, we’ve discussed oats, potatoes, turnips, cheese, ale, and even herring.  However, we’ve neglected a critical component of 18th century life – the dairy and milk.

In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith uses a dairy as an example of how price relates to production. However, in his detailed example of how a farmer might keep cows for meat and use them for dairy, he gives us a glimpse into how an 18th Scottish farm worked when it came to animals and dairy production.  
The business of the dairy, like the feeding of hogs and poultry, is originally carried on as a save-all. The cattle necessarily kept upon the farm produce more milk than either rearing of their young or the consumer of the farmers family requires; … [milk] will scarce keep four-and-twenty-hours. The farmer, by making it into fresh butter, stores a small part of it for a week; by making it into salt butter, for a year; and by making it into cheese, he stores a much greater part of it for several years.
As Smith notes, lower prices make it difficult for the farmer to justify the expense of livestock, but higher prices provide income he can reinvest in the dairy.  Or, as Smith notes 
If [the price] is very low, indeed, he will be more likely to manage his dairy in a very slovenly and dirty manner, and will scarce perhaps think it worth while to have a particular room or building on purpose for it, but will suffer the business to be carried on amidst the smoke, filth, and nastiness of his own kitchen…
However, with price increases in meat farmers were able to justify the expense of feeding and maintaining cattle and turn more valuable land to the purpose of keeping livestock. “The dairy becomes more worthy of the farmer’s attention and the quality of its produce gradually improves.” 

Sir Frederick Eden Morton in The State of the Poor: Or, An History of the Labouring Classes in England, from the Conquest to the Present Period, details the barriers for many cottagers to keeping livestock and laments the high price of milk for the London poor. (He also considers it an essential for tea noting that without it “a labouring man, in the metropolis, who thinks he cannot afford milk, … there obliges his family to drink their tea in a very crude state.”)

Georgians embraced new ways to extend the life of food like ice houses and snow-wells. And ice was very important for a particular frozen delicacy of the time – ice cream. The Scottish loved their ice crem, so much so that in 1748, William Cullen gave a demonstration at the University of Glasgow of an ice cream freezing machine. 

Lucy Worsley, in her book If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, says this machine “worked by the turning of a handle” probably sitting on a block of ice. The Victorians would later introduce an ice cream churn where “a drumful of cream was placed in an outer chamber packed with salt and ice. You turned a handle to agitate the cream, while the intense cold surrounding it gradually caused crystals to form.”

The first reports of ice cream (probably literally frozen cream) in England are from 1671 or so, but the treat gained popularity quickly – especially among the wealthy who were likely to have an ice house for freezing. (Ice was expensive and scarce in cities.) The first recipes for the treat appear in the early 1700s, while addition of eggs for custard ice cream arrived from France in the mid-1700s. There’s nothing in Elizabeth Cleland’s 1755 cookbook, A New And Easy Method Of Cookery, on iced cream, although she covers the wide range of ways to sweeten cream and enhance the flavor adding everything from citrus rind and spices to sugar and wine. 

While we don’t know if Adam Smith had a favorite flavor, we do know that ice cream was a popular treat in his circle. James Boswell writes that in 1775 he had “an excellent supper” at David Hume’s home in Edinburgh with “three sorts of ice creams,” an incredible luxury for the time.  (Smith wasn’t at this particular dinner, but we can assume he was at others equally decadent.)

Today, we know the difference between ice cream and frozen cream is that a churning motion causes the cream to freeze forming individual crystals which transform it into something quite different than a frozen lump of custard.  In the 18th century it would have been a time-consuming activity for a servant, but today, with small batch ice cream machines, it’s an easy task.  With this easy spiced ice cream recipe, you can make yourself a treat worthy of David Hume or Adam Smith’s dinner table.

Spiced Ice Cream

·         1 tbsp fresh orange zest
·         1 tbsp cardamom pods, lightly crushed
·         1 tsp vanilla extract 
·         1 cinnamon sticks
·         1 tsp cloves
·         ½ tsp whole cloves
·         2 star anise pods
·         1 cup milk
·         ¾ cup sugar
·         2 cups cream
·         1/8 tsp salt
·         Grated nutmeg for topping
1.       A day ahead: If you’re using an ice cream maker with a frozen bowl, put the bowl in the freezer 24 hours ahead of time.
2.       12 hours ahead:  Add your spices to the bottom of your saucepan over medium heat for 3-4 minutes.  Stir as they heat but don’t let burn. (This toasts the spices and releases the oils.)
3.       Add your milk, sugar, cream and salt to the spices.  Over medium-low heat, bring just to a simmer.  Reduce the heat and cook for 30 minutes.
4.       Remove from the heat and let cool, then refrigerate the mixture overnight.
5.       Remove the ice cream machine bowl from the freezer.  Strain the refrigerated mixture directly into the ice cream bowl.  Discard the spices. Churn according to your machine’s directions. (For modern small machines, it will take about 20 minutes.
6.       Put the churned ice cream into a plastic container and freeze until solid, about 3-4 hours.  Remove from the freezer 10 minutes before serving.  Scoop and sprinkle with grated nutmeg on top.