No American is alive today who attended the St. Louis World's Fair, which opened this month in 1904, but those who were there never forgot it. Spread across two square miles and staying open until December, the fair attracted 12 million paying guests (and millions more who evaded the turnstiles) and featured everything from John Philip Sousa's band and replicas of Ireland's Blarney Castle and India's Taj Mahal to a huge water slide, reenacted sea battles, and a 264-foot-tall Ferris Wheel.
It also showcased the ice cream cone, a new creation that prompted a spirited battle of authorship lasting decades and one I've written about previously. Make no mistake, however, the innovation popularized in St. Louis that year was the cone, not the ice cream. That wondrous invention had been around for a while and was a favorite of U.S. presidents since the earliest days of the republic. It still is, which is why President Trump's attacks on Nancy Pelosi for her quarantine-induced riff about loving ice cream is so incongruous.
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James Corden is a pleasing on-screen personality known, at least in this country, for "Carpool Karaoke" and as the host of "The Late Late Show" on CBS. He recently interviewed Nancy Pelosi from a distance, as per our current social custom. Corden was in Los Angeles, where he lives. Speaker Pelosi was quarantined at her tony San Francisco home and agreed to participate in a "show and tell" segment on how Americans are coping with being in lockdown. "Chocolate," she said before showing Corden a box of candy and then opening her freezer to reveal an impressive stash of Jeni's Ice Cream.
"I enjoy it," Pelosi added. "I like it better than anything else. I don't know what I would have done if ice cream were not invented."
In a sane political world, this would never be controversial. But that's not the world we inhabit -- and wasn't, to be honest, before the current pandemic -- so Pelosi's detractors took advantage of the optics: At a time of economic upheaval, here was a wealthy patron with her huge high-end freezer and enough pints of gourmet dessert to open an ice cream parlor.
C'mon, people. Americans love ice cream and always have. It's as American as baseball -- although, unlike the national pastime, ice cream wasn't invented on these shores and its introduction here predates the nation's founding. The first written reference in the New World to ice cream that I'm aware of came in the 1744 diary of a Scottish immigrant named William Black. While visiting the estate of Maryland Gov. Thomas Bladen, Black described one sumptuous dinner thusly (I've cleaned up the spelling, as well as the punctuation and such, as Mr. Black tended to randomly capitalize words with the same promiscuity Trump does on Twitter):
"[T]he scene was changed to a dining room, where you saw a plain proof of the great bounty of the country, a table in the most splendid manner set out with a great variety of dishes, all served up in the most elegant way, after which came a dessert most curious: among the rarities of which it was composed was some fine ice cream, which with the strawberries and milk, eat most deliciously."
Precisely 50 years later, which was five years after he became president, George Washington served this delicacy at dinners at Mount Vernon. Making ice cream at the time entailed cutting ice from somewhere: George took his, according to his journal, from the Potomac River.
Thomas Jefferson was the first president to serve ice cream in the White House, and also the first American to write down an ice cream recipe, which he apparently found in France. First Lady Dolly Madison frequently served ice cream in the White House, sometimes mixed with oysters, a less appealing flavor to a modern palate than Jefferson's French vanilla.
By Abraham Lincoln's second term in office, with peace finally on the horizon, the official menu for the president's 1865 inaugural ball featured six kinds of ice cream: vanilla, lemon, white coffee, chocolate, burnt almonds, and maraschino.
It's probably no coincidence, but our stoutest president, William Howard Taft, also loved ice cream. First lady Nellie Taft served it to guests in the Red Room three times a week. To ensure a ready supply, the Taft White House took measures that make Nancy Pelosi look like an amateur: As White House historian William Seale revealed in "The President's House," the Tafts not only added a large Peerless Ice Cream Freezer to the White House kitchen in 1912, but kept a Holstein cow on the grounds to ensure a fresh supply of milk and cream.
And so it went through the ages. The advent of modern media necessarily meant photographs of presidents enjoying ice cream. Here's Calvin Coolidge and his wife eating the treat at a 1924 White House reception honoring World War I veterans. There's Gerald Ford stopping in a New Hampshire ice cream parlor during the 1976 presidential campaign. (Ford's favorite was butter pecan, which he loved more than his preferred adult beverage. Ford once told his doctor he wanted to lose 10 pounds. "That's easy," said the physician. "Either give up your nightly martini or give up your butter pecan ice cream." The martini was history.)
Dwight Eisenhower had managed the Normandy invasion before becoming president, so he was willing to tackle an ice cream bar in front of the cameras while wearing a sports coat and tie; John F. Kennedy, a U.S. Navy man in the same war, was confident enough to eat (and not spill) a vanilla cone while on his sailboat.
Government may have been the problem, not the solution, in Ronald Reagan's mind -- but the Gipper wasn't shy about putting the prestige of Washington behind an official proclamation labeling ice cream "a nutritious and wholesome food" while declaring July 1984 National Ice Cream Month.
Although he's a health food nut now, President Bill Clinton loved ice cream as much as William Taft, and there's photographic evidence to prove it. George W. Bush, Clinton's "brother from another mother," liked cones with pralines and cream, but would eat vanilla custard in a pinch. When Barack Obama went home to Hawaii for presidential vacations, he'd enjoy a confection from his youth -- coconut ice cream -- but his first job as a teenager was in an ice cream parlor so he had eclectic tastes.
Nancy Pelosi could have relied on this rich history in replying to Donald Trump's historically tone-deaf criticism of her, but she didn't. Instead, the House speaker recited a line apparently written by her staff: "I have ice cream in my freezer," Pelosi said in an appearance on MSNBC. "I guess that's better than having Lysol in somebody's lungs, as he was suggesting."
Although this is the opposite of a clever retort, it's what passes for wit in Washington these days. A better rebuttal would have been for the speaker to point out that she's been to the Trump White House and happens to know that this president likes ice cream so much himself as a dinner dessert that the ushers have standing instructions to always slip him an extra scoop.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.