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Premium Ice Cream – A Jewish Invention?

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Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield revel in the luxurious taste of their own ice cream at a public event.For those of us who love indulging in mass-marketed premium ice cream – especially as an antidote to sweltering summer days – it may come as a surprise to learn that this popular treat was primarily a Jewish invention, which took off forty years ago.

While 2009 saw the launch of Chozen, a premium ice cream with such Jewish holiday-oriented flavors as matzo crunch, apples and honey, and chocolate gelt, Mitch Berliner – an ice cream purveyor for the past 35 years – says that Jews have always been innovative entrepreneurs, even when it comes to ice cream.

Over a century ago, cream had to be ordered from a confectioner at a prohibitive cost, so ice cream was considered a luxury for the new Jewish immigrants to the United States. In subsequent decades, the sweet and smooth dessert item became more readily available in stores. In the 1970’s, however, the country witnessed a small revolution in the business when a Jewish immigrant from Poland turned ice cream into a luxury – albeit widely sold – food item.

Reuben Mattus was a 10-year-old in the 1920’s when he teamed up with his uncle in Brooklyn to sell Italian lemon ices. Before 1927, when the first refrigerator was produced, ice cream was relegated to summertime consumption. “In those days, we bought the ice from the Great Lakes in the winter and buried it with sawdust in pits in the ground until summer,” Mattus told popular food author Joan Nathan, as she recalls in the online publication Tablet. The new home food storage device enabled the Mattus family to manufacture ice pops, as well as chocolate-covered ice-cream bars and sandwiches.

“People wouldn’t buy our ice cream,” Mattus recalled. “I said to myself, ‘Why can’t we make good ice cream so people will buy it?’ Then I got a hold of some books and studied how to make ice cream. The first thing I told my mother was to fire our ice-cream maker.”

Mattus said that his top priority was to ensure that the ice cream had an enjoyable taste, followed by the need to market it correctly. “I prided myself on being a marketing man,” he told Nathan. “If you’re the same like everybody else, you’re lost. The number one thing was to get a foreign sounding name.” With that in mind, Mattus chose Häagen-Dazs, a name he admits to concocting because it sounds Danish, and Denmark was the only country to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

Mattus also made the extra effort to have his product certified kosher: “If I made good ice cream, I wanted my people to get it,” he said. Häagen-Dazs — which was sold to Pillsbury in the 1980s — was originally sold in Manhattan’s gourmet shops in pint containers. “Schrafft’s cost 52 cents a pint. Ours was 75 cents a pint,” he related. “I didn’t believe in selling it for 59 cents. I made a special ice cream for people who wanted a special taste. That was my attempt and it worked. It sold by word of mouth.”

As Häagen-Dazs become a nationally distributed item in the early 1970’s, Boston businessman Steve Herrell opened a local ice cream shop, and soon decided he could make some real waves in the field by mixing up a wide range of unusual flavors. Herrell’s unique flavors included everything from malted vanilla, cookie dough, peanut butter swirl and triple chocolate pudding to insertions of Heath Bars and M&M’s.
While Herrell eventually sold his business, his expansion of ice cream’s flavor palette heavily influenced Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, whose Ben & Jerry’s premium ice cream has gone on to carve out its own niche in the market. The product’s exotic mix of flavors – featuring highly imaginative names – includes such delectable treats as the “Chubby Hubby,” which contains fudge covered peanut butter filled pretzels in vanilla malt ice cream rippled with fudge and peanut butter; S’mores, which consists of chocolate ice cream with fudge chunks, toasted marshmallow and graham cracker swirls; and “Chunky Monkey,” made out of banana ice cream with fudge chunks and walnuts.

Chozen Ice Cream is managed by Ronne Fisher and her daughter Meredith. “My two daughters were sitting and eating frozen rugelach one night, and one of them said, ‘Wouldn’t that taste good in ice cream?’ ” said Ronne. The ambitious entrepreneur took a weeklong course at “ice cream university” to learn the basic aspects of the business, purchased a machine and began making ice cream with rugelach, matzo, halva and babka — all kosher and dairy. “These delicious flavors are typically Jewish and Eastern European,” she explained, adding that future flavors may encompass blueberry blintz and matzo kugel.
Ronne and Meredith Fisher prefer to keep their company on a more modest level. “I think we are a niche business,” Ronne Fisher commented. “We have no aspiration to be Häagen-Dazs. It’s just the two of us. We love it. We are small. Our hope is to bring smiles to people’s faces.”

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