Where does a sundae come from?

Malaysia, Yugoslavia, and Persia should all take a bow - but so should Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and a nameless shopkeeper.

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Going bananas

Would you like some giant herb with your ice cream? Bananas don't grow on trees - they grow on plants that are related to lilies, orchids, and palms. The banana plant is actually the largest herb in the world. Horticulturists classify bananas as "starchy berries."

Until the 1870s, bananas were unknown in America. The fruit, which originally grew in Malaysia, had spread to India and China centuries before the Christian era began. After conquering India in 327 BC, Alexander the Great brought the banana west. These were not the large Dwarf Cavendish or Gros Michel bananas we know today. Early bananas were small. Arab traders thought they looked like fingers. "Banan" means "finger" in Arabic. A Portuguese Franciscan monk, Tomas de Verlanga, brought banana plants to the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo in 1516.

Bananas got to be big business in America not long after they were introduced at Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition of 1876. Bananas wrapped in tinfoil sold for 10 cents apiece. Soon merchants were establishing banana plantations in Central America and shipping the fruit to the United States. The United Fruit Company, which came to monopolize the banana business, grew so powerful that it virtually controlled the governments of some Latin American countries. (You've heard of a "banana republic"?) Part of the fruit's popularity was the fact that for a long time bananas, along with oranges, were the only fruits available in the winter.

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Fill 'er up - with maraschino cherries?

The sweet sundae-topper has its origins in Yugoslavia and northern Italy. For centuries, merchants had used marascas - small, bitter, black wild cherries - to make a sweet liqueur. Part of the flavor came from crushed cherry stones, which have an almondlike flavor. Marascara cherries preserved in the cherry liqueur were imported into the United States in the 1890s. These maraschino cherries were an expensive luxury served at the finest hotels.

With typical ingenuity, American cherry processors figured out a way to make a less expensive version. They used Royal Anne cherries, less liqueur, and almond oil instead of crushed cherry pits. In the 1920s, alcohol was eliminated altogether when horticulturalist Ernest Wiegand found a way to preserve cherries using brine instead of alcohol. The American version of the maraschino became so popular that it completely replaced the foreign import.

Today, cherry "briners" in Oregon use 10 million gallons of brine each year to preserve cherries. Processors have to pay to dispose of the used brine, which consists of water, sodium metabisulfite, citric acid, and calcium chloride. The used brine also contains sugar from the cherries. Just about anything that contains sugar can be fermented to produce ethanol, which can be used as fuel. Why not used brine? Processors now must pay nearly $1 million to dispose of the brine. The potential ethanol "harvest" is 250,000 gallons. But the economics of this don't quite work yet. Distillation plants would have to be built, and waste brine trucked in. It doesn't make sense yet, but in the future, do you suppose your gasoline would have a cherry flavor?

Marsh mallow-less marshmallow sauce

We still call them marshmallows, but there's no marsh mallow in them anymore. Candy made with honey and thickened with sap from the root of the marsh mallow (Athea officinalis) plant was savored in ancient Egypt. Marsh mallow, the plant, grows to be two to four feet tall. It has gray-green leaves and pink flowers. Not surprisingly, it grows in marshes and is related to other "mallow" plants, such as the rose mallow, the apricot mallow, and the common mallow.

Up until the mid-1800s, marshmallow candy made in the United States contained marsh mallow sap as a thickener. Today's recipes use gelatin (made from animal bones and hides) instead of the sap. Mostly, though, marshmallows are made of corn syrup or sugar. Gum arabic (made from acacia trees) serves as a "foam stabilizer." Flavoring is also added.

From the royal courts of Persia to you

Roasted walnuts have been enjoyed for at least 8,000 years. Archaeologists have found petrified shells of walnuts from the Neolithic period. Clay tablets record that walnut groves were part of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon - one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - 4,000 years ago. The walnut most familiar to us today is the Persian (also known as the English or Italian) walnut. This walnut, once reserved for Persian royalty, was sent to Greece in ancient times.

The Romans acquired it from the Greeks and planted it across Europe. It could be that the Romans reestablished walnut trees in Europe. The last of the glaciers from the Pleistocene era (from 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago) may have wiped out the walnut trees of northern Europe.

Walnuts have been part of dessert for ages. In 14th-century France, a banquet dessert was made of walnuts preserved in spiced honey, stirred once a week for several weeks in preparation. The English ate walnuts with cheese at the end of a meal. Baklava, a well-known Middle Eastern delicacy, is made with layers of filo dough, honey, and ground walnuts.

James Bartholomew's contribution

Russian-born immigrant Samuel Born gets credit for inventing chocolate sprinkles. Born arrived in America about 1910. By 1923 he had established the Just Born Candy Company, a small candymaking factory and retail store in Brooklyn, N.Y. He invited his brothers-in-law, Irv and Jack Shaffer, to join him in business. That left Born free to pursue his many candy-related inventions, such as a lollipop machine.

Another Born invention was tiny, hot-dog shaped chocolate thingies, which he developed in 1930. What to call them? An employee named James Bartholomew operated the machine making the new candy, so Born named the confection in his honor. He called them "Jimmies."

"Jimmies" is a trademarked name, though you'll get a lot of quizzical looks if you ask for jimmies anywhere but in the Northeast. They're also known as chocolate sprinkles, toppettes, shots, fancies, and trimettes.

Sundaes on Sundays

The ice-cream soda was invented in 1874. Philadelphian Robert Green was selling a drink made of cream, carbonated water, and syrup. When he ran out of cream, he substituted ice cream - and his daily sales jumped from $6 to $600. Ice-cream sodas were a hit.

But in the 1880s, some communities banned the drinking of "sinful" carbonated beverages on the Sabbath day. And so, the story goes, a clever soda-fountain owner came up with a soda-less soda: ice cream topped with syrup. It was called a "Sunday," which later became "sundae."

Some cool highlights from ice-cream history

You don't have to be a millionaire to afford an ice cream today. For most of recorded human history, though, frozen deserts were the privilege of the wealthy. It was very expensive to harvest ice, transport it, and store it for use in warm weather.

The concept of frozen milk goes back 3,000 to 4,000 years to China. Ancient Roman and Persian nobles also reportedly enjoyed frozen fruit concoctions, and the idea found its way to the rest of Europe.

It was the Italians who perfected frozen desserts and took them on a world tour - by emigrating throughout Europe and to the United States.

In the 1560s, Roman physician Blasius Villagranca discovered that saltpeter (potassium nitrate) added to snow and ice would freeze cream very quickly. The technology caught on in France, where confectioners developed a fancy frozen dessert of sherbet and fruit layered into a rounded mold called a "bombe glacée" (an "icy bomb").

Although the US was formed in rebellion against royalty, its early leaders - Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson - had a taste for the frosty favorite of the aristocrats. And in the early 1800s, first lady Dolley Madison (wife of James Madison, the fourth president of the US) distinguished herself as a sophisticated hostess by serving bombe glacée at the White House.

Later in the 19th century, ice cream became widely available to the average American. Nancy Johnson invented the hand-cranked ice cream freezer in 1843. Ice and rock salt packed around the outside made the ice-cream mixture freeze quickly. (Not quickly enough, perhaps, if you were the one doing the cranking.) By the late 1800s, Philadelphia, with its many ice cream "houses," was synonymous with the beloved dessert. "The Philadelphia" was a popular egg and vanilla flavor.

Ice cream was becoming serious business. At his Philadelphia home in 1866, William A. Breyer hand-cranked his first gallon of Breyer's All Natural Ice Cream. The Pennsylvania State College began to offer an ice-creammaking course in 1892.

Technological innovations made ice cream even more available, affordable, and important to American culture.

In 1899, French inventor Auguste Gaulin made ice-cream texture smoother by breaking down the globules of milk fat with his "homogenizer." Clarence Vogt of Louisville, Ky., opened the door to mass-producing ice cream when he invented a commercial freezer in 1926.

Italian ice-cream vendors who sold frozen sweets from carts in London were known as "hokey pokey" men, and that nickname was used in America as well. Then, in the 1920s, a candymaker from Ohio named Harry Burt started selling the "Good Humor Sucker."

This popular chocolate-covered vanilla ice-cream bar on a stick was sold by "Good Humor" men, who drove trucks that played a musical tune to alert would-be customers. The era of mass marketing and brand recognition was in full swing.

"Soft-serve" ice cream got its start in the 1930s. Tom Carvel (born Thomas Carvelas) patented the "no air pump" super low-temperature ice-cream machine in 1936 and developed a soft-serve ice cream formula. He created a huge franchise of ice-cream stores all over the country and became as famous for his TV commercials as for his Carvel ice-cream cakes.

In today's America, you have a wide choice of ice cream. You can buy the gourmet, super-premium variety from your favorite small ice-cream shop. You can pick up a low-fat frozen dessert at your local supermarket.

Best of all, perhaps, you can even make your own.

- Maud Dillingham

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