Ice Cream’s Jewish Innovators
Jews have pioneered the premium ice cream craze for 40 years, from Häagen-Dazs to Ben & Jerry’s and beyond
A few weeks ago, roaming the endless aisles of the mammoth Fancy Food show in Washington, D.C., I stopped at the booth for Chozen, a premium ice cream with flavors inspired by the Jewish holidays: matzo crunch, apples and honey, chocolate gelt.
“Who would have the nerve or the chutzpah to put matzo in ice cream?” Chozen co-founder and CEO Meredith Fisher told me. “Jews like to kvetch, but who can kvetch about ice cream?”
It got me thinking about the connection between Jews and ice cream: I’ve reported on Jews in the ice cream business several times during my career as a food writer, without really connecting all the dots. But there are dots to connect. Because while Chozen—founded in 2009 by Meredith Fisher with her mother, Ronne—may be the most obviously Jewish ice cream on the market, it’s hardly the first brand started by Jews. In fact, Jews helped launch the entire craze over premium ice cream four decades ago and have played a key role in its success ever since.
“They are used to catering to a demanding clientele who expect quality, rather than being surprised by it,” explained Ellen Brown, author of Scoop and a food writer for the Providence Journal.
“Jews have always been entrepreneurs and think out of the box,” said Mitch Berliner, a food distributor who has been in the ice cream business for 35 years. “Even about ice cream.”
The notion that ice cream was a luxury product dates back more than a century, to the time when Jewish immigrants were flooding into America and ice cream was something that most people churned themselves at home. “Ice cream is generally regarded by families of limited means as a luxury only to be indulged in on special occasions, when company is expected or for birthdays and high holidays,” a writer in the American Jewess explained in 1896. “The poor children, who never get half enough of this frozen delight, are told that it is very unhealthy, and to partake too freely thereof is fraught with the most disastrous consequences to their little stomachs. This widely diffused belief, and the expensiveness of cream when ordered from a confectioner’s, have relegated the most palatable of dainties to the realm of rarely-to-be-attained desires.”
Ice cream became a much cheaper consumer product decades later, and today giants like Nestlé and Unilever control most of the mass-produced ice cream on supermarket shelves. But in the 1970s, a Jewish immigrant from Poland changed the business forever and made ice cream a luxury product once again.
Reuben Mattus started in the ice cream business in the 1920s as a child of 10 just after he and his widowed mother, Leah, stepped off the boat in America. His uncle was in the Italian lemon-ice business in Brooklyn, and Reuben joined him, helping his mother squeeze lemons for the ices they sold in Brooklyn and then the South Bronx.
Until 1927, when the first refrigerator was manufactured, ice cream was seasonal. “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 me when I was researching my book Jewish Cooking in America, before he died in 1994. By the late ’20s, the family began making ice pops, and by 1929 chocolate-covered ice-cream bars and sandwiches.
“People wouldn’t buy our ice cream,” Mattus remembered. “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’ new kind of ice cream was so heavy that he had to change his equipment. “The most important thing is to make it taste good,” Mattus said. But the second most important thing was to market it properly. “I prided myself on being a marketing man,” he told me. “If you’re the same like everybody else, you’re lost. The number one thing was to get a foreign sounding name.”
How did a Polish immigrant come up with a name like Häagen-Dazs? He was inspired by Jewish history: “The only country which saved the Jews during World War II was Denmark, so I put together a totally fictitious Danish name and had it registered,” Mattus told me. “Häagen-Dazs doesn’t mean anything. [But] it would attract attention, especially with the umlaut.”
Mattus also made sure to get his product certified kosher: “If I made good ice cream, I wanted my people to get it, so I made it kosher,” he said. Häagen-Dazs—which was later sold to Pillsbury in the 1980s—was first sold in Manhattan’s gourmet shops in pint containers, as a luxury product. “Schrafft’s cost 52 cents a pint. Ours was 75 cents a pint,” he told me. “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.”
By 1973, Häagen-Dazs was being distributed nationally. And that same year, another man, married about that time to a Jew who became his business partner, was making ice cream history near Boston: Steve Herrell opened Steve’s in 1973 in a converted dry-cleaning joint in Somerville, Mass. The shop, with its mismatched chairs and tables in wild colors, looked like many other comfortable college hangouts, but it wasn’t.
When Steve’s opened, most ice cream being sold was vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry; even Häagen-Dazs’ most exotic flavors at the time were rum raisin and boysenberry, according to Berliner, Häagen-Dazs’ first distributor outside New York. Herrell decided the time was right to mix things up a bit.
Herrell lived in a co-op at the time, sharing a house in Cambridge with six roommates. “One of my housemates told me that she had been to a place in Miami where they would mix things on a slab, and she said why don’t I try that. We could then say that we had thousands of flavors,” Herrell told me several years ago when I was researching an article for Bon Appetit. “But since that time, I have been unable to find out what this place was in Miami. Then, again, mixing things into food is not new, so generally what my response is that I introduced mixing in to the commercial ice cream trade.”
As the flavors multiplied, Herrell wrote them in different colors on little slats of wood in the shop: malted vanilla, cookie dough, peanut butter swirl, triple chocolate pudding, with mix-ins like Heath Bars and M&M’s. Who’d ever tasted, or for that matter even imagined, such flavors almost 40 years ago? Long lines formed every night for Steve’s ice cream.
By making “mix-ins” big business, Herrell cemented his place in ice cream history. Burned out from 90-hour work weeks, he sold his ice cream shop in 1977. (The store became a chain, was sold again, and finally closed; last year, David Stein, one of Herrell’s former employees from his original shop, revived the brand, producing pints for sale in stores.)
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