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21 June 2023

The black dessert-maker who helped bring ice cream to the masses

More than 170 years after his death, Augustus Jackson is remembered as an American confectionery pioneer.

By Felicity Cloake

The American ice cream trade is dominated by white men. Ben and Jerry. Baskin and Robbin. Häagen and, um… Dazs. OK, the last two are just nonsense words the founder (and white man) Reuben Mattus thought sounded vaguely Danish. But the fact remains that the industry is considerably less diverse than its customers (US consumers put away more per capita than any other country bar New Zealand), which is why a passing mention of Augustus Jackson as “the father of ice cream” at a recent British Library talk caught my attention.

Jackson was born in Philadelphia in 1808, the same year that the US officially abolished the transatlantic slave trade. He worked in the White House kitchens before establishing his own confectionery business in his home city, where he is listed as one of five black confectioners in an 1838 trade directory. A paper presented to the American Historical Society in 1913 explains that Jackson “invented ice cream” and for a long time “enjoyed the monopoly of the sale of this delectable dessert”, selling it at one dollar a quart.

There is little information on record about Jackson. But we do know that he did not invent ice cream, or even, as is sometimes claimed, the eggless version known as “Philadelphia-style”. The earliest written recipe, from England in the 1660s, is a similarly simple concoction of frozen, sweetened cream, and Eleanor Parkinson opened her celebrated Ice Cream Saloon in Philadelphia when Jackson was just ten.

As well as enabling black customers to enjoy pleasures denied to them by white-owned establishments, Jackson may – rumour suggests – have been a pioneer in the packaging of ice cream, allowing it to be transported and resold in an era before artificial refrigeration. Yet if this is true, he never patented his invention. I can say just one thing for sure: for his name to live on 170 years after his death, Augustus Jackson must have made really great ice cream.

[See also: Why does everyone love coronation chicken?]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars