Ice Cream and Fruit: A Culinary Tale

Today I’ve decided to talk about something that is very important to me. It is something that I have devoted probably about 45 minutes a month to, but only in my free time. I don’t really know what that means. The something is this: ice cream. I love ice cream. If I could eat nothing but ice cream, and not die of ice cream poisoning, I would. Sometimes I still do that, but that’s just because I eat when I’m stressed. Don’t judge me. Today, I’m going to categorically and unequivocally prove that fruit deserves a place amongst ice and cream and sugar and those churns that you make ice cream with.

Since I’m such an ice cream fanatic, here are some ice cream facts, which I definitely knew off the top of my head. If you absolutely need some sort of “proof” (it’s the internet guys, I could have written that page and posted it under that URL and you’d never know)…(but you could know if you know how Unix works…so)…(also the author writes her name at the bottom of the page) you could go to this website. China was probably the inventor of ice cream, around 3000 BC. Marco Polo may or may not have brought ice cream to Italy, where it was refined into the delicious goodness we enjoy today. The first ice cream recipe to be published in America was a recipe for a fruit ice cream published in 1792. This recipe included apricots, 12 of them, which as we know, are fruit. In fact, according to a survey of 18th and 19th English and American century cook books, fruit ice creams were the most popular ice creams enjoyed by the people who bought those cook books and then made the recipes in them as well as, of course, the people to whom those people served the fruit ice cream. In 1928, a man named Howard Johnson built the original Baskin Robins – but not the actual Baskin Robins – with 28 flavors of ice cream. Among his 28 flavors, which were varied based on season and ingredient availability, were strawberry, banana, burgundy cherry, orange pineapple, lemon, grape nut, and apple. As my more astute readers will note, all of those flavors have fruits in them.

This volume published by the National Association of Retail Druggists (yes, druggists is the word) says that fresh strawberries should absolutely be served with ice cream in season, and advised the operators of soda fountains that the only reason they haven’t been selling well in the early spring, is that they haven’t been offering it to their patrons. Which, I’ll admit, is a little presumptuous.

A website hosted by the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, explains some of the chemistry involved in ice cream making. Which, is interesting. The website informs it’s readers that the sugars in ice cream help bring out the sweetness and palpability, and it enhances the perception of various fruit flavors. Another website hail solids in ice cream, saying they are important to the ice cream’s boby, texture, and smoothness.

At this point, I had basically run out of steam. I was looking forward to writing this long, pedantic (but brilliant) post about fruit and ice cream, and I just couldn’t find any more material to draw from. I was befuddled. Then, something happened. I was reading something on the internet which referenced a part of the vanilla plant as a fruit. This then lead down a harrowing rabbit hole involving botany, culinary art, and vegetables. As it turns out, the resulting discussion is actually much more interesting than what I was originally going to talk about, and amazingly still kind of related.

I like definitions. I like the subtleties between different words. Whom versus who. That versus which. I also like science. I think that looking at the world through the lense of science is a very good way to see things as accurately as possible. These truths being self evident (to me anyway), the first thing I did after stumbling upon this starteling and potentially ground breaking bit of information was search for the definition of fruit.

I searched for the definition of fruit, and I googled whether vanilla was in fact a fruit. Which, it is, but we’ll get to that later. It turns out that fruit is a botanical, scientific definition. It is the seed-bearing structure in angiosperms (flowering plants) formed from the ovary of the plant after flowering. At this point a bunch of voices in my head screamed things about vegetables. If that was the definition of a fruit, what is the definition of a vegetable? Here’s where the juicy part starts. Scientifically speaking, vegetable is gibberish. In fact, the term vegetable has no meaning in botany. Most of what you think of as “vegetables” are actually fruits. Tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, chili peppers, string beans, snow peas, and nuts, are all fruits.

Most of the other things that we think of as vegetables are either classified as fruits and seeds, or they are classified by the part of the plant that is being eaten. There are four main classifications for this, including fruits. These classifications, as described in the linked article, are: leaves and stems, seeds, starchy roots and other subterranean structures, and fruits. With these four classifications we cover the “hard core vegetables” like kale and spinach (category one); peas, corn, wheat, oats, and barley (category two); carrots, sweet potatoes, beets (all true roots), and tubers like white potatoes (category three); and peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, squash, and green beans (category four).

So now that we’re all reeling from the news that we’ve been lied to all of our lives, and vegetables don’t actually exist, we can get back to defining what a vanilla really is. Vanilla plants are a group of species in the genus Vanilla, which is a member of the family Orchidaceae (Orchids). There are three main types of vanilla that make up the things you consume labeled “vanilla”. These are Vanilla planifolia, a flat-leaved Mexican species, as well as V. tahitensis found in the South Pacific, and V. pompona found in the West Indies. Most vanilla is produced in Mexico and Madagascar (V. planifolia), and is commonly known as Bourbon vanilla or Madagascar vanilla. A list of all the vanilla species can be found here.

The fruit that the vanilla plant produces, which is commonly referred to as the vanilla bean, is a simple dry fruit. It consists of pods, which are the bits that we would commonly refer to as the ‘bean’. It gets slightly confusing here, but only if you’re a huge nerd and actually are still interested. I was ready to proclaim the vanilla bean a legume fruit, because it is a simple dry fruit with a pod that dehisces (splits along two seams) to reveal the actual vanilla seeds. Which, is the botanical definition of a legume fruit. However, according to many threads on the internet, and a couple different websites, vanilla beans are not legumes. They are however (I’m pretty sure) a type of simple dry fruit, regardless of whether they are legumes or not. (Because at least a few of you are going to be wondering, while the cacao fruit from which we get chocolate is a fruit, a cocoa bean, which is the part that is actually used in making chocolate, is the seed of the fruit, not the fruit itself.)

Okay. You, an ordinary person, would think of this as the end of the discussion. You would be wrong. Because vanilla isn’t one of those fruits you just eat, like apples or blueberries. It is most commonly used to flavor other things, or simply for its aroma. This is done by making vanilla extract. This can be done one of two ways: either with real vanilla fruits, or by manufacturing the chemicals that create the vanilla flavor artificially. The main chemical in vanilla fruits that gives it the flavor that we all know and love, is vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde). Real vanilla extract also has acetaldehyde, acetic acid, furfural, hexanoic acid, methyl cinnamate, and hundreds of other chemicals that add to the flavor.


The chemical structure of vanillin. (Source: Wikipedia)


Making real vanilla extract is a simple process of having some vanilla and getting hammered with vodka. Whoa. Nope. That’s just how I’d do it. (it should be called helpfully explains, the way to make vanilla extract is to immerse vanilla beans in vodka (or bourbon or brandy or rum) and just let it soak, shaking occasionally. While that article attempts to speak ill of artificial (chemical) vanilla extracts, it is important to remember that all foods are chemicals, and not all chemicals are bad. In fact, chemistry is everywhere, and most of it doesn’t give you cancer. The vanillin in artificial extracts is the same chemically as the vanillin in real vanilla extracts, otherwise it would be something else. Like an asparagus, or a lobster. Real vanilla extract tastes different (better) because of all the extra chemicals contained in real vanilla fruits. (If you actually read that whole article, here is another link about castoreum, which you will probably have questions about.)

Some vanilla ice cream has actual bits of vanilla fruit in it. (Those are the little black spots you’ve always wondered about.) Others are just flavored with vanilla extracts, either real or artificial. Vanilla ice cream is undoubtedly one of the most popular flavors of ice cream. Whether it’s in third, according to that meaningless statistics website, or first, according to that infogram (which is probably created from census data or something), vanilla ice cream is at or near the top of the most lists of favorite ice cream flavors. Since the vanilla bean is, scientifically speaking, a fruit, the notion that fruit has no place in ice cream is, scientifically speaking, simply incorrect.

However, scientifically speaking can be a lousy way of looking at things. Don’t get me wrong, it is a GREAT way of looking at a lot of things. Just remember though, botanically and scientifically speaking, the word vegetable is meaningless. Culinarily speaking, it’s not. This is why tomatoes are usually called vegetables, as are green beans, peas, carrots, beats, and the most things you put in a salad. In no way of speaking is pizza a vegetable, or a fruit. If you eat a lot of pizza, you’ll probably gain weight, no matter how you define your words. Why am I not going to keep writing about this apparent impasse? Why do I not feel a need to keep going with this until we have clearly defined everything?

Well, dear readers, even I can understand that a world full of science and logic but lacking art (which is what makes the difference between culinary art and chemistry), would be a pretty boring place to live. While scientifically speaking fruit absolutely does belong in ice cream, speaking as a normal person, put whatever you want in your ice cream. Just don’t tell me what belongs in mine.

Comments are closed.