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There's No Such Thing as Homemade Ice Cream

Mises Daily: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 by

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In the freezer section of the grocery store, there's Vanilla Bean, French Vanilla, and yet another vanilla flavor called Homemade Vanilla. Now, come on! I'm in the store here, looking at rows and rows of commercial products produced by a vast capitalistic machinery, a cornucopia of frozen goods made by advanced industrial technologies, made from goods and services that require a global division of labor and a sophisticated trading and price system rooted in private property and replete with entrepreneurial risk at every stage of production.

There's nothing "homemade" about anything here, and surely everyone knows that. It's just marketing — not that there's anything wrong with that.

But it got me thinking. What is real homemade ice cream? Oh, I've made it before. It has always struck me that you can't really make real homemade ice cream with an electric machine. Electricity is so artificial, and if you are going to plug in a machine, in what sense are you actually making the stuff? Pouring ingredients into an electric bucket and waiting isn't really "making" anything. You might as well let someone else do that and buy it from them. You might as well make a trip to the freezer section of the grocery store.

Nope, homemade must be hand cranked all the way, so the "elbow muscle" does the hard work. And it can be exhausting. You turn and turn and crank and crank and it seems like it will never become thick like ice cream. Then when it finally happens, and you are tired out, the turning gets harder and harder until you have to throw your whole body into it and finally you just can't turn it anymore. At that point, it is ready to eat.

Is it worth it? That's a subjective judgment. But consider: how many of the ingredients themselves are homemade? Is the stuff that makes the ice cream really homemade and truly authentic? We've already dispensed with the need for an electrical plant in your backyard by settling on the hand-cranked method. This is a great step toward homemade.

But what about the rock salt, a product that seems useful for either breaking up ice on the sidewalk or for making ice cream but not much else? I bought my packet at the store. This is clearly a compromise of the seeming need for autarky in ice-cream production, so what if we made this ourselves?

Wikipedia says that rock salt:

occurs in vast beds of sedimentary evaporite minerals that result from the drying up of enclosed lakes, playas, and seas. Salt beds may be hundreds of meters thick and underlie broad areas. In the United States and Canada extensive underground beds extend from the Appalachian basin of western New York through parts of Ontario and under much of the Michigan Basin. Other deposits are in Ohio, Kansas, New Mexico, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. The Khewra salt mine is a massive deposit of rock salt near Islamabad, Pakistan. In the United Kingdom there are three mines, the largest of these is at Winsford in Cheshire producing half a million tonnes on average in six months.

All I can say is, Yikes, I've got some travelling to do. And some crews to hire. And then I have the problem of packaging the stuff and shipping it back from Islamabad or Winsford or wherever. But wait, it seems like Morton sells a product that might be the same thing but, in any case, markets itself as Ice Cream Salt, as distinguished from just plain rock salt for driveways and the like. What the difference is, I don't know. But I'm not taking any chances, so more research on this point is clearly necessary.

Then there's the problem of milk. I could buy a cow but that's a lot of upkeep. I understand that you have to milk one of these things regularly whether you are making ice cream or not. And there's the problem of feed and waste and many other issues. Raising and keeping this animal healthy might turn into a full-time job, with no time left over for making, much less enjoying, ice cream.

Of course you need refrigeration and ice, without which matters are rather hopeless. It took most all of recorded human history to invent the refrigerator, which only became common in American homes in the 1920s and 1930s, and so it is pretty presumptuous for me to assume that I could construct one on my own. Plus, these things run on electricity, and I thought I had dispensed with that in the name of authenticity. So long as I'm using electricity to store the milk and ice, why not just let electricity turn the crank too?

I'm back to plan A: get a generator. I'll pretend not to notice the problem of making homemade gasoline to power it. After all, I could use a river (need to get one of those) or erect a giant windmill (prepare for dead bird carcasses to litter up the yard), but then there's no power on windless days. How about a solar-based generator? Break out the Windex (can I make that at home too?). This is getting expensive.

Of course you need eggs, which means chickens, which I wouldn't entirely rule out, but everyone I know who has tried to raise chickens for eggs eventually throws in the towel. It is a disgusting job, fully of unexpected headaches, like getting rid of varmints and keeping the chickens warm and buying expensive feeds and dealing with filthy critters and chicken coops.

It is doable, provided I wanted to quit my job into order to raise a cow and chickens. But there's still the problem of sugar and flavor. Sugar can be had in many ways. I could raise bees or sugar cane or extract it from fruit and many others processes, each rather daunting. It would be far easier just to buy some, but then what about authenticity and that important "homemade" aspect of my ice cream?

Now let's talk about vanilla. Apparently this derives from a bean grown in Mexico and Madagascar, and, says Wikipedia, "extensive labor required to grow the vanilla seed pods." Now I seem to have bumped up against an impossible problem. I live in neither place, and apparently my climate just can't do the vanilla-growing thing. Maybe I need a greenhouse. Artificial vanilla would require a chemistry lab out back.

I've said nothing about the ice-cream maker itself, which uses stainless-steel gears and a crank. In the whole history of humanity, steel as we know it only became economically viable in the 19th century, and stainless steel is very much a modern invention. It would require vast study for me to even figure out the metallurgical aspects of this. And at the least, I would need a blast furnace out back, and one wonders how the cow, the chickens, the electrical plant, and vanilla-producing greenhouse would fare amidst that.

Once I have the steel I would still need to form it. Then there's the problem of the wood for the maker too, so I would need to cultivate trees and mill them and somehow shape them into round slats. Already, it would appear that I need a backyard full of stuff from all nations and all times, not to mention the physical impossibility of maintaining all these contraptions without a vast labor force that included engineers from many fields and experts in a huge range of tasks. Bankruptcy would begin even before this operation began.

The division of labor — global and involving thousands and even millions of people — is looking ever better, all beautifully coordinated by the price system and given forward motion by entrepreneurs at every stage, operating in coordination from all parts of the world.

In fact, it is pretty clear that there is no such thing as homemade ice cream, and that we use the phrase only in the most metaphorical sense. Thank goodness. In this case, I'm seeing the point: the store is just the last stop in a huge and extended process that emerged over centuries and requires the involvement of people all over the world.

They can call their vanilla ice cream homemade if they want to. Given what they go through to get us good food at good prices, capitalists have more than earned the right to stretch the language a bit when trying to persuade us to buy their products. We are the beneficiaries of a remarkable system of human cooperation.