Magazine article Tablet Magazine

Ice Cream's Jewish Innovators

Magazine article Tablet Magazine

Ice Cream's Jewish Innovators

Article excerpt

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 Chozenfounded in 2009 by Meredith Fisher with her mother, Ronnemay 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 Nestle 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. …

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