Makes You Shiver: How politicians use ice cream to get your vote

Makes You Shiver: How politicians use ice cream to get your vote

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A potted history of sweet treats and slimeballs from our friends at Sandwich Magazine.

In the dirty game of politics, we are not surprised to see candidates couple themselves with our favourite musicians, movie stars and even media moguls. But when our most delicious treats are used to influence our opinion on who governs, we surely have to ask ourselves if this is okay? Is using ice cream to garner the favour of the people a step too far? Kiss a baby, eat a hot dog, wear some high vis, drink a beer, visit a diner and always get clicked holding an ice cream. This is the prerequisite list of pit stops on the orienteering farce that is the well-worn election trail. The one you really want to make the most of is the double scoop of voter values, but why is ice cream such a presidential power play?

Iced desserts started as a dream, a mirage in the minds of overheated great apes. With time and ingenuity this figment of our imagination became more possible and a reserve of the highest echelons in society. Here the power was transferred to the plate and these cold treasures became signifiers of social class, if you’re eating a special thing then you must be a big deal. As author of 1825’s The Physiology of Taste, Brillat-Savarin said, “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”. That first anointing has carried forward, I will argue, through all the cogs of time and industrialisation so that when we see a hopeful leader basking in the sun, cone in hand, deep in our psyche we pledge our allegiance to the mother-licker.

The most popular flavour of ice cream is vanilla, and that seems pretty obvious. The term vanilla has become synonymous with anything plain, ordinary and widely regarded as a safe choice. The fact that this enhancer is derived from the seed pod of an orchid that in most cases must be hand-pollinated then expertly fermented and dried - leaves me wondering if there’s another attraction to the bean. Rachel Herz, a cognitive neuroscientist, is an expert on the psychological science of smell. She links vanilla to the smell and taste of breastmilk we experience as tiny infants; as we taste vanilla ice cream we are transported to a connection to our mother. The Spanish were the first of the colonisers to encounter the spice in Mexico, where it was used to enhance chocolate tinctures, and gave it the name we all use today, a name that loosely translates from the Latin to “little vagina” - read into that what you will. Maybe it’s no wonder we are willing to pay a king’s ransom to take a trip down mammary lane. Could our brains be so easily manipulated that when we see a politician lapping up a Mr. Whippy we want them to make our packed lunch and kiss better the scrapes and scratches of 21st century life. When we punt for an orb of old vanny it turns out we may be telegraphing our desire for a return to the maternal fanny. Considering the power contained within this thin husk, most of the vanilla flavour we experience isn’t even from vanilla pods, only around 1% is pure vanilla and if you’re consuming that then you’re doing pretty well for yourself. The lion’s share of synthetic vanilla is derived from petrochemicals (yummy), but the active compound, vanillin, is found in an array of alluring products from coffee and butter to maple syrup and oak-aged spirits.

Elizabeth David is one of the most influential food writers of all time, her greatest achievement being to make English people like Italian food. In her 1994 (posthumously published) tome Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices, she charts the way in which we humans have gone to great lengths to enjoy something cold on a hot day. Ancient Greeks and Romans were storing winter ice and snow in specially engineered underground facilities to wow guests with chilled wine, exercising the desires of the elite in society to invert the laws of nature and show off – a tradition perpetuated through to the present day and no doubt beyond (I’m looking at you Elon). In order to change the physical state of a liquid, ice alone wasn’t going to cut it. The great leap came when it was discovered that the addition of salt to ice made it super cold, if a sealed container of liquid was submerged in this icy concoction for long enough it would come out frozen. Regular agitation would prevent it from freezing into a solid lump and the formation of smaller crystals allow for a scoop. This must surely have been a revelation, you can right now search for ‘baby eating ice cream for the first time’ on YouTube, in fact do it… right now. Okay, now imagine all those babies are medieval elite Europeans, what a show it must have been. A neurological chemical ecstasy with a cherry on top. These crystalline gastronomic miracles were the talk of high society but not to be unleashed on the population at large for another two centuries, mainly because having a freezer involved building a subterranean house insulated to the hilt and filled with winter ice. Even until the early 19th century ice cream was most definitely filed under “fancy European shit”, a magic trick that demonstrated both the limits of natural science and the dinner party host’s finances.

Let’s fast forward from this early-modern pudding party, we want to take a look at how this frozen feat of science became a piece on the chessboard of politics. Things really started to get interesting after the Americans made ice cream part of their national identity, with technology booming in many areas and especially refrigeration. New appliances did away with the old ice and salt trick, favouring a sealed gaseous heat exchange which is still the basis of modern freezers today. Powered by electricity, these units required no other inputs and the cost of making ice cream plummeted. Churning machines began to make a once niche spectacle into a widely available commodity. When immigrants arrived into New York they were given an ‘American meal’ and the sweetener in this brave new world was an aspirational scoop. What a brilliant kick to the nuts of the superpowers of Europe - whilst they all scrambled around for a cholera infested penny lick, in the States you could get a muzzle’s worth if you could stand the brain freeze. If America stood for democracy and breaking free from the chains of colonialism then ice cream would be its flag bearer. An erstwhile elite treat had just been appropriated (and industrialised) for the masses. In Europe, the promise of jam tomorrow wasn’t quite as appealing as the stateside delivery of jam straight away.

Much has been made of Thomas Jefferson’s love affair with ice cream, indeed the third president of the United States was credited with writing down the first recipe on American shores. He most likely was acting as scribe for his talented French servant Adrien Petit but the fact remains that Tommy couldn’t get enough of that sweet vanilla icy cream. His Monticello estate had its own ice house making it possible to serve the dessert all year round, and his head chef there, James Hemings, was a Paris-trained Chef de Cuisine born into slavery. Jefferson was the first in a long line of US presidents who would all scream for ice cream, with a penchant for frankish desserts cultivated during his time as a special envoy in Paris, the power to grease the wheels of diplomacy with the right menu wasn’t lost on him. As dignitaries dined with the figurehead of this fledgling nation, the ending of a meal with ice cream was a suggestion (with all the subtleties of a foghorn) that this was a nation to be taken seriously. Bill Clinton could have saved some time by taking everyone to Pizza Hut for a whirl on the ice cream factory before whipping out the NAFTA proposals. Maybe he did?

What you are seen eating in public is all important if you are running for public office, epitomised by the fact Joe Biden practically licked his way to the presidency in 2020, with every cone reminding the American people of his values. Ice cream might just be the least offensive portable snack or an excellent excuse to dodge a difficult voter - “sorry, must dash, my lunch is melting”. Looking at a presidential candidate with the spirit of a hungry labrador, latching on to the embodiment of democracy, we feel in safe hands. Give that person the codes to our nuclear arsenal, we can trust them to steer a course through the fog of modern global politics. It isn’t just Joe who has made the most of being an ice cream person, Washington spent the equivalent of $5,000 on ice cream in one summer, others such as Madison, Lincoln, Ford and Reagan all had a reputation as voracious scoop scoffers. Bill Clinton went vegan and adopted raspberry sorbet as his poison, George W was a pralines and cream guy, Trump liked to motorboat two vanilla D-cups with some warm brownie (quelle surprise) and Obama is possibly the only president that started his working life as a server in the Honolulu branch of Baskin Robbins - no doubt earning him some lifelong friends (and voters).

During World War Two, the US navy spent $1million on a floating concrete ice cream factory in 1945 to keep up morale and remind the soldiers what they were fighting for – the freedom to eat shit loads of ice cream whenever they goddamn well pleased. This converted barge stored over 2,000 gallons of ice cream and distributed it to ships that weren’t kitted out with the facilities to make their own. The army and air force followed suit, providing their recruits with a taste of home and helping win hearts and minds in the wake of military victories. Ice cream was so heavily associated with the spirit of America that Mussolini banned it, which considering it’s widely assumed ice cream was invented in Italy, is some statement. The power to persuade soldiers to fight and then to placate lay in the same freezer, just as Uncle Sam had done with the immigrants, he was serving up a taste of American values and post-war Europe lapped it up.

It’s not just on the US side of the pond that ice cream has had such a political influence, Great Britain too, has had its own taste of being led into the woods by the alluring tune of the party political ice cream van. Margaret Thatcher is erroneously credited for some nondescript masterstroke in the evolution of soft serve ice cream. The ‘Iron Lady’ profited for years off this association and ruined the experience of eating the sweet silken ice cream for many. Thank goodness the only shared trait is that they both had a heart of ice. Dr Annie Gray pointed out on the You’re Dead to Me podcast that Thatcher was a “very, very small part of a very, very small paper that looked into the science of overrun”. Overrun is the term used for pumping air into ice cream, inflating it into a mousseline frosty mountain of lies. You think you’re buying ice cream but it’s as much as three parts air for every one part ice cream. In Daniel Fromson’s 2013 article ‘The Margaret Thatcher Soft-Serve Myth’ published in The New Yorker he highlights the efforts made to perpetuate the fallacy that Thatcher was “the baroness of ice cream”. Her success was in large part due to convincing the British working class that she stood for them as well as all the coke-snorting bankers mincing about with oversized mobile phones. “The ice cream is on me!” she never said, the voters lined up, red turned to blue as Mrs T dusted the last of the wafer crumbs from her lap. Boris Johnson chose the backdrop of an ice cream van to promote the British seaside after Covid 19 restrictions were eased, his choice of a Mr Whippy no doubt a nod to his Grand Elder – the savvy ice cream man still made him dust off the cobwebs from his wallet, which was a tip top piece of shithousery. During the 1890’s in America, Blue Laws restricted the consumption and sale of certain sinful products and services such as alcohol and at this time ‘sucking sodas’ were added to the roster. The problem for pharmacies at the time was that they were doing a booming trade in ice cream sodas – so to circumnavigate the laws they invented the ice cream sundae. The soda was replaced with a sweet fruit syrup and Jesus turned a blind eye whilst families piled down to the local diner for a purely puritan treat. This comfort came into its own when the sale of alcohol was restricted completely during the prohibition era of the 1920’s, if you didn’t want to go as blind as Jesus by drinking moonshine, the comfort of a sundae would give a silver lining to the great depression.

Ice Cream found other ways to protest when, in 1957, the Royal Ice Cream Parlour in Durham, North Carolina became the focus of heated racial tension.

A group led by Reverend Douglas E. Moore sat in a section reserved for white patrons displaying their objection to the wider segregation in society at that time. The resulting arrests and trial inspired others to follow suit and within the context of the civil rights movement it was clear that ice cream was for everyone, everywhere. In 1978, as many were being introduced to Garfield for the first time, the ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s was founded. While we have explored how the political sphere has used ice cream to exert its influence over voters and decision makers alike - here we flip the table and see an example of a creamery flexing its own political muscles. Over the years the company has waded in on issues ranging from the settlement of the West Bank to Colin Kaepernick taking the knee. We must commend the way they have maintained their principles of corporate activism through astronomical success and in spite of their subservience to parent company Unilever. The cynic in me wonders if this is a character trait now being aped to generate column inches and drive spoons tub-wards, but I guess that isn’t necessarily here nor there if the message is getting through.

The Pennsylvanian poet Wallace Stevens knew that “the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream”, and perhaps all power lies in the influence of small things. Our attention is divined one stitch at a time, consented to until the final pass of the needle when the promised coat of colours turns out to be a straitjacket. Ice cream is a key in the politician’s hand, unlocking a door to our vulnerable child within, a child that can be coerced, enticed or scared into action. The next time you give yourself over to a Cornetto, appreciate the moment and steel your little self against those who would lead you to the gingerbread house. As David Bowie puts it in his song ‘Magic Dance’, “you remind me of the babe (what babe?), the babe with the power…” Ice cream has the power to take us to the cot and wrap us in all the comfort we imagine in that moment, it also has the power to drive our aspirations, to become a better version of ourselves, a version that struts about the promenade with two scoops of “look at me”.

A version of this story was originally published in Sandwich Magazine Issue 7: The Ice Cream Sandwich Issue. You can buy the latest issue here or follow Sandwich on Instagram.