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From soda fountains to social media: Al Roker explores the history of ice cream

Al is getting the scoop on this classic summertime treat.
/ Source: TODAY

In the latest episode of TODAY All Day's "Family Style," Al Roker explores the history behind one of America's favorite summer treats — one scoop at a time.

A world without ice cream is hard to imagine, but through the early 1800s, the dessert was largely available to only the wealthy. Though the exact origins of ice cream remain unknown, European-style ice cream became popular in France during the 1600s. The recipe was made using a custard base that contained cream, eggs, milk and sugar. According to food historian and author Sarah Lohman, ice cream was only available to the rich because sugar and ice were rare and expensive commodities.

In the early 19th century, a new type of ice cream style emerged in Philadelphia that was made without eggs. According to Lohman, Augustus Jackson, a free Black man who worked as a White House chef under several presidents, helped popularize this new type of ice cream and developed a method to keep ice cream colder for longer.

Upon returning home to Philadelphia, Jackson started his own catering business and began selling the ice cream to other local shops. The quicker production method pioneered by Jackson and other ice cream makers at the start of the Industrial Revolution allowed more people to enjoy the Philadelphia-style ice cream Americans still eat today.

As an ode to Philly's delicious history, brothers Eric and Ryan Berley opened their own soda fountain, modeled after early 20th century fountains, in 2004. The Franklin Fountain is now a popular place for locals and tourists to enjoy ice cream sodas made with homemade syrups, sundaes, shakes and, of course, premium scoops.

Inspired by the building's turn-of-the-century architecture, which includes original penny tile floors and tin ceilings, the Berley brothers decided the space was perfect for a vintage soda fountain — and some really great ice cream — and they spent nearly two years renovating the space to restore its classic features. But learning to make old-fashioned treats required adventures beyond city limits.

"We took a number of road trips ... visiting places in the American South, going down to New Orleans, going to Savannah," Ryan told TODAY. "Seeing these old-fashioned soda fountain places, interviewing the soda jerks, the pharmacists. And really learning the culture of the soda fountain was a big part of our research."

Since opening, Franklin Fountain serves as a time capsule experience that aims to both sweeten and slow down the pace of busy modern life.

"We're very proud to be called soda jerks," Eric said, referencing a term of endearment once coined for skilled soda fountain operators.

Bringing families and communities together over ice cream is hardly a thing of the past. In 2017, Petrushka Bazin Larsen and her husband Nick Larsen opened one of the only independently owned creameries in Harlem, New York. Aptly named Sugar Hill Creamery, everything about their shop (from its title to the small-batch flavors) is an ode to history, culture and community.

"Sugar Hill is a neighborhood in Harlem that at the turn of the 20th century was the place where upwardly mobile Black people came to and resided. It was also the home of the Harlem Renaissance — many artists, activists were living here," Petrushka told Al. "We're channeling Harlem. We're channeling childhood memories. We're channeling the way that we were raised, what we were eating."

As for the ice cream, the Larsens look to Nick's upbringing on Midwestern farm (he also spent many years in the fine-dining scene), Petrushka's Afro-Caribbean roots and the area's diverse food for inspiration. Their Cafe Touba flavor, for example, blends Sengalese coffee from Harlem's Little Senegal, peanut brittle and African selim pepper. While Nick creates new flavors every season, keeping them on the menu is a group effort as he welcomes local patrons to provide constant feedback.

Their love for the neighborhood is also reflected in the Larsen's motto for their business: "The sweet life is a love affair between community and food."

"The sweet life is also a reference to The Great Migration. When people moved to Sugar Hill, they were looking for the sweet life," Nick Larsen told Al. "We wanted to give our neighbors, in part, a little bit of sweet life as well."

As for the future of ice cream shops?

"We eat with our eyes, right? So there's always been effort and consideration to the appearance of food," Lohman explained to TODAY. "But the more photographs we can take and the wider they get spread, like with the spread of Instagram and social media, I think there's been even more of a ... focus on how our food looks on camera."

Sundaes and sodas have always been visually pleasing, but as technology improves, ice cream makers are finding even more innovative ways to create eye-catching treats, drawing in customers from a much wider community: social media.

In Las Vegas, another husband-and-wife team know a thing or two about dishing up sweets for their local customers and delighting fans on Instagram and Tik Tok. At Creamberry, Danny and Rosalina Sie make over-the-top treats and feature desserts with flavors from around the world. For Danny, opening a specialty dessert cafe in 2016 was a dream come true.

"I've always had a sweet tooth when I was younger, and I've always loved ice cream," he told TODAY.

Rosalina, who grew up in Indonesia, wanted to incorporate some of her favorite desserts, too, so the shop also serves shaved ice with a luxurious secret sauce, topped with fruit and condensed milk. Also on the menu, Filipino halo halo and rolled ice cream, which originated in Thailand. But perhaps the most famous of the lineup is their cotton candy burrito.

Inspired by their sons, who (like most kids) love cotton candy, Danny said he had a stroke of genius while dining at a Mexican restaurant. Creamberry became one of the first shops in the U.S. to offer the viral treat, which begins with a plume of home-spun, rainbow cotton candy that's then lightly flattened and filled with colorful candies and vibrant ice cream. It's then gently rolled into a burrito shape and sliced down the middle.

Driven by her customers' joy and an awareness of social media's power to keep eateries relevant, Rosalina began posting Creamberry's creations to Instagram and TikTok. Soon, their electric-hued desserts became an international hit. Still, for the couple, nothing beats the feeling of seeing folks try their sweets in person.

"We can never get enough of seeing all the smiles when the customers get their orders, and all the wows, and just the facial expressions that they give us," Danny said.

Throughout ice cream's evolution, from its novel beginnings as a pricey delight to futuristic creations that look as good as they taste, it's clear that few things beat enjoying this frozen dessert.

"I think that ice cream shops, spaces, parlors, ice creameries have survived, because they've always fulfilled that community space — and that family space," said Lohman. "And it's something that everybody can come together around."

"Family Style with Al Roker" airs at 11 a.m. EST, Wednesday on TODAY All Day.