Each summer I take a stab at making homemade ice cream. I put the silver Donvier ice cream maker cylinder in the freezer and cook up a vanilla custard of cream and eggs, which I stash in the refrigerator and wait impatiently to chill before pouring it into the ice cream maker. I turn the red handle every few minutes and watch the silky liquid seize up and harden into a bumpy, yellowish mass. The ice cream tastes fabulous right out of the Donvier— creamy, eggy-rich, fresh— but after a day or two in the freezer, it turns hard, I turn sullen and it’s another summer before I make another attempt.
After experiments like this, I’m very grateful for the pioneering work of Jacob Fussell. In 1851, the dessert world changed when Fussell, a Baltimore dairy owner, made lemonade from lemons by turning a surfeit of cream into hundreds of gallons of ice cream, creating the first wholesale ice cream business in the nation.
Fussell didn’t invent ice cream; the frozen confection had been gaining in popularity in the United States since the mid-18th century (ice cream was reportedly served at the table of Sir Thomas Bladen, who served as governor of Provincial Maryland from 1742 to 1746). But ice cream was strictly a summertime treat, made in small batches at home or bought from a local confectionary. Fussell introduced ice cream as a commercial product and spawned an industry that’s given us Creamsicles, Häagen-Dazs and Klondike bars.
In the early days, purveyors like Hendler’s delivered their ice cream around the city by horse cart, each gallon buried deep in a mixture of ice and salt that required metal hooks to dislodge it from its frozen chamber. Very quickly, however, the ice cream scene became all about mass production and efficiency. Located in East Baltimore, Hendler’s (catchphrase: “The Velvet Kind”) was the first company to use motorized, and then refrigerated, delivery trucks, the first to have a completely automated facility, and the first to abandon hand-packing for their “famous brick,” a rectangular block of ice cream also known as “the packaged pint.”
Although it seemed like Hendler’s was the ice cream of choice at every soda fountain from 1905 to 1960, there was plenty of competition from other local companies, including Arundel, Delvale, Eckels, Bonwick and Rourk, Castleman’s (known for making spumoni and tortoni for Little Italy restaurants), and Castle Farms, which had stalls in the Lexington and Broadway markets.
Despite the number of ice cream purveyors, there were really only three flavors available— vanilla, chocolate and strawberry (though you might occasionally get a seasonal peach or butter pecan). Later, local companies like Lee’s and Moxley’s picked up where commercial ice cream companies like Baskin-Robbins and Friendly’s had taken off, producing myriad flavors, like a halvah-flavored ice cream I remember from Lee’s Joppa Road store and Moxley’s eyebrow-wigglingly sour lime sorbet.
On the surface, Taharka Brothers, one of Baltimore’s more recent ice cream ventures, doesn’t fit the typical ice cream mold. “This is not your normal ice cream situation,” concedes Darius Wilmore, the company’s chief creative officer.
In the company’s compact facility on Clipper Mill Road, I watch as three impossibly tall young men transfer toffee-colored, 14 percent butterfat, salty caramel ice cream scoop by scoop from a large container into small cardboard pints. An older man with closely cropped gray hair and wearing khakis painstakingly places grapefruit halves on the reamer of a manual juicer. He pulls the handle, the grapefruit deflates and the pinkish-yellow juice, which with a little sugar and freezing will become sorbet, streams into a large glass measuring bowl. Two freezers, formerly refrigerated holds on freighters, blow minus-20-degree air around small stacks of frozen ice cream, and two carts decorated with a mosaic of colorful images wait for summer’s festivals. The whole operation seems closer to Jacob Fussell’s 19th-century experiment than a 21st-century business.
But Taharka Brothers is a social enterprise that began as the non-profit Sylvan Beach and was later revamped as the for-profit Taharka Brothers in 2008 (though still owned by Sylvan Beach), explains Sean Smeeton, the company’s CEO. Here, a handful of young African-American men make ice cream together with the goal of gaining entrepreneurial training and the confidence to go out and inspire others in the community (they also share living quarters downtown).
“The city could use some young black leaders to make a difference, influence their peers,” says Smeeton, who sees the work at Taharka Brothers as “a platform to give an alternative vision of success.”
If this seems a lot to ask from an ice cream company, Smeeton is quick to point to Ben & Jerry’s, another ice cream company with a conscience. “Ice cream is a
social product,” Smeeton says. “It’s easy to bring people together.”
Wilmore wants Taharka Brothers’ Mount Washington “scoop shop” to be an extension of the company’s social mission. It should reflect the vibe of Baltimore, he says, and serve as “a place of culture” that shows movies and hosts concerts and inspires the community. It should be like a big ice cream social, Smeeton suggests.
Wilmore smiles. “I want it to feel like John Waters and Tupac [Shakur] met at my Aunt Ruby’s and ice cream was served on Oakmont Avenue,” he says.
Count me in and pass the salty caramel.