Grim's Grub: A tale of ice cream and cholera

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

I think most ice cream parlors wouldn't be the same without samples while you seek your choice; but at one point in history, ice cream samples may have been responsible for the spread of devastating disease.

Today, samples come on little disposable spoons of wood or plastic or, if you're lucky, tiny cones. Before 1899, samples were served on something called a “penny lick," which looks like a tiny, fluted drink ware with an impossibly shallow depression on the top - like a thick-stemmed wine goblet with only a quarter inch or less of space for drinks.

At ice cream parlors in the 19th century, potential customers could choose samples, which were smeared into this small depression of the penny lick. The penny lick was handed back to the customer, who licked out the sample and handed it back to be reused.

If you know your history, you know that Louis Pasteur had first created germ theory in the late 1850s, so before this time nobody knew there were microscopic organisms being left on penny licks and drinking water ladles. So nobody knew that penny licks were unsanitary.

In fact, well after Pasteur came up with germ theory, traditional beliefs that all diseases were caused by unpredictable and uncontrollable poisonous air called “Miasma” continued well into the 1880s. So even then, nobody suspected the penny licks could be spreading disease.


Finally the pieces began to fall into place when the medical community started accepting germ theory. Penny licks were seen as a possible source of tuberculosis, and then in 1879 they were linked to the spread of cholera. Use of penny licks was banned in 1899.

Of course, some vendors continued to use penny licks, until a more international ban in the 1920s and 1930s. One reason penny licks may have persisted so long was a lack of alternatives. Around the time penny licks were banned, a replacement was brewing. The death of the penny lick meant the birth of the waffle cone.

The first waffle cone was created in 1896 by Italo Marchiony of New York City, an immigrant of Italy, though some credit Ernest A. Hamwi of Syria with the discovery. Hamwi was selling crisp waffle pastries called zalabis in a booth next to an ice cream vendor at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair when the popularity of ice cream led to a shortage of ice cream dishes.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict what came next.

Homemade Ice Cream Cones

  • 2 egg whites
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons whole milk
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • Jelly beans/malted milk balls/Milk Duds or similar

Combine all ingredients, except candy, and mix until smooth. Heat a pan on low heat. Pour 1 ½ tablespoons of batter into the warm skillet and spread into a thin layer, moving around for a round shape. Spread this to about 6 inches diameter. Once the base has set, flip and continue cooking for approximately one minute.
Being very fast and very careful of the heat, remove the still pliable disk from the pan and roll it into a cone. You may be able to roll it into a tube and gently widen just one end. Hold this in a cone shape until it cools and hardens, seam side down, approximately 1-2 minutes.

Once hardened, drop your chosen piece of candy into the bottom of the cone to prevent leakage. You may also decide to seal it with melted chocolate.


Rhubarb Ice Cream

Adapted from the Our Lady of Lourdes-Pine River rhubarb cookbook

  • 3 cups thin sliced rhubarb
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Toss the sugar with rhubarb in an ungreased baking dish and then bake, covered, at 375 degrees for 30-40 minutes, or until tender, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool and then process in a blender or food processor with lemon juice. Allow to chill completely.
Either whip the cream until stiff peaks form and then fold in the rhubarb mixture before transferring into a shallow freezer container and freezing, uncovered, for one hour, stirring every 15 minutes before freezing completely overnight.

Or transfer cream and rhubarb mixture to an ice cream machine and process according to the machine's instructions.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

19th-century penny lick glasses.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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