The history of snow cream

Feb. 13, 2014 @ 03:14 PM

In some parts of the country, snow settles in as part of the bleak winter landscape. In the South, snow is an event — one marked by a dessert you can eat only at those rare times when there’s at least a little white fluff falling from the sky.

Snow cream.

The dessert itself is simple enough: milk, sugar, vanilla and freshly fallen snow (some people add eggs). But where did that instinct — to gather snow and whip it into a sweet treat — come from?

Perhaps because it’s such a simple concept, the origins of snow cream are hard to nail down.

Nancie McDermott, a Chapel Hill-based food writer and founder of CHOP NC, the Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina, said she made it as a child in the 1950s and ’60s, and her mother, who was born in 1924 and grew up on a dairy farm between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, remembers making it as well. But that’s likely nowhere close to the beginning of the story.

“I would bet my biggest stainless steel mixing bowl, which I cherish, that it goes all the way back into the 1800s, and maybe earlier, and perhaps native people,” McDermott said. “Because new fallen snow? Sugar or syrup or honey? Why wouldn’t people have been doing that for longer than we can prove?”

The history of making dessert from snow spans centuries. The Persians ate snow mixed with concentrated fruit juices, and both Alexander the Great of Greece and Emperor Nero of Rome were said to eat mixtures of honey and snow.

Closer to home, the snow cream tradition tends to live in memory — the type of thing that’s passed down through generations, not recipe cards.

“It was deeply embedded in our culinary life, though we didn’t think of it as such,” McDermott said. “I didn’t know the word ‘culinary’ until the 1980s, and it wasn’t something in my mother’s recipe file box or in her Betty Crocker cookbook, and it’s actually not in many standard homemaker cookbooks.”

Several News-Topic readers on Facebook shared their childhood memories of snow cream — often whipping it up with their parents after playing in the snow all day.

“I have such good memories of my mama making snow cream for us in the late ’60s and throughout the 1970s,” Darla Dugger Carter wrote. “I remember just like it was yesterday, it was always a big deal!”

Farther north, snow might be a nonevent, but here, it’s worth some celebration. Just make sure, if you celebrate with snow cream, to pass the recipe down.

You’re not likely to find it in a cookbook.