Even as we wave buh-bye to summer, many of us still are reveling in rich, ripe, heirloom tomatoes, as well as in ice creams, because both just keep getting better and better. One of the earliest ice cream companies we know of is Bassett’s, out of Philadelphia. As a kid, Tom Hughes, co-founder of The Food Museum, recalls that hitting the Bassett’s counter at Philly’s Reading Terminal Market was the highlight of a trip into the city, for a kid from suburban Jersey. “My Dad and I headed straight to Bassett’s on arrival, jumped on those stools, and I ordered pumpkin ice cream.”
The place where this still thriving company was born is also in New Jersey, in Salem. There, in 1861, a Quaker schoolteacher and farmer named Lewis DuBois Bassett apparently first hooked up his mules to a churn and began making ice cream in his backyard. We do not know where his farm was, as evidently it has not been preserved. So a food heritage site for New Jersey has been lost. Not lost, however, is the mythical tale of another Salem resident, one Colonel Robert Johnson, who was said to have risked his life in 1820 to eat in public, on the courthouse steps, a tomato.
Yes, people were extremely wary of tomatoes at the time, and considered them poisonous. Earlier on in history people thought the tomato’s close cousin, the potato, also was to be avoided. Both were unfamiliar to Europeans, as plants of the Americas, and the potato’s berries were indeed filled with a toxin. (Compare a potato and a tomato plant some time. If the spud’s berries form, they will remind you of the tomato’s fruit.) But—-there apparently is no historical basis for the tomato-eating story. It does seem true, however, that the good Colonel brought tomatoes to Salem in 1820, planted them, and likely persuaded others to grow them. New Jersey did become tomato central over the years, with Campbell Soup’s Camden, New Jersey plant turning out tomato soup for decades.
A guy named George P. from Denver recalled: ”I worked at RCA in Camden, between 1975 and 1980, just before Campbell's moved their tomato soup operations to California. I still can smell the tomato soup being made in Camden. The smell was so sweet and delicious they could only have been Jersey tomatoes.” Back to Bassetts (somewhere along the line they dropped the apostrophe). According to the company timeline, Mr. Bassett did not begin marketing his ice cream to the wider world until 24 years later — had he retired from teaching — when he set up shop at 5th and Market Street in Philadelphia. Once the Reading Terminal Market began in 1892, the business was moved there, with Bassett apparently becoming the first merchant to sign a lease.
Vendors of fresh produce had long done business at informal markets in Philadelphia, beginning in at least 1680, and over the decades assorted markets had taken root. The Reading Terminal Market has its own food heritage tale to tell, as this booming hub of food slid into disrepair and disuse in the 1970s, and was rescued, repaired and revived through the hard work of many food fans and historic preservationists. ( As cities revive and reinvent themselves, as people decide they want to live and eat near where they work, and bike or walk to everything, old food markets become once again vital.)
Bassetts Ice Cream got a major boost when the founder’s grandson, Lewis Lafayette Bassett, Jr took over in 1925. The guy was into “exotic” flavors, and new technology. According to the company, in 1935 Bassett “ships 10 quarts of ice cream, packed in dry ice, via freighter from New York through the Panama Canal to the American Embassy in Tokyo. The voyage takes several weeks but the ice cream arrives in perfect condition.” In 1959, LLB Jr made up a large batch of borscht-flavored ice cream that was delivered to Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev, making his first visit to the US. Did he eat it? Like it? We do not know. Borscht-flavored ice cream is not on Bassetts ice cream menu today.
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