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Leopold’s Ice Cream: A Century of Tasty Memories

Read an excerpt from a new book that chronicles 100 years of ice cream from Savannah’s beloved institution.

George and Peter Leopold arrived on the stoop of their new storefront before sunrise of its opening day in mid August 1919. Savannah’s Gwinnett and Habersham Streets were quiet as Peter arranged wooden slats on top of crates, filling them with fresh fruit, and set magazines and newspapers on the exterior display, while George assembled the cash register inside. At seven o’clock sharp, Leopold Brothers Ice Cream was officially open for business.

The young brothers were among the growing flurry of Greek entrepreneurs around the country who owned shoeshine parlors, candy shops, and especially, restaurants. Greeks had made a name for themselves in the hospitality industry, and by that same year owned 3,000 restaurants, or 35 percent of all eateries in Chicago alone.

One of the most popular items on menus nationwide was ice cream, a relatively new treat for most Americans, who didn’t taste it until the early 1900s. Originally a delicacy for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European aristocracy and early American presidents, the discovery of pasteurization and mechanical and freezing processes allowed for safer, mass production of ice cream. But it was the introduction of the edible ice cream cone, called a cornucopia, at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, that turned the portable dessert into a national obsession.

Utilizing the French Pot process they learned from master confectioner and mentor James Peter Zarafonetis in Indiana, Peter and George crafted their own recipes of five- and ten-gallon batches of ice cream made in-house with fresh cream, milk, and eggs, sourced from the best local dairy farms.

Electric paddles churned the blends in deep metal buckets, and one of Leopold’s first non-family employees, Clarence Ballenger, added natural ingredients like vanilla bean, strawberries, coffee, and chocolate before freezing the mixtures.

To freeze the ice cream, Ballenger shoveled ice and salt into a trough around the metal container throughout the day. The ice cream was then stored in cork-lined freezers with counterweighted lids until served.

In a short time, Leopold’s classic flavors Vanilla and Chocolate became local staples, but it was a unique blend of rum ice cream studded with gem-colored, candied fruit and fresh-roasted Georgia pecans known as Tutti Frutti that quickly became their hallmark flavor. Rum Bisque became another signature flavor, as Peter realized the power of co-branding and incorporated homemade almond macaroons from the popular Gottlieb’s Bakery, established by Russian immigrants in Savannah in 1884, into ice cream batches.

Soon after they opened, a ten-year-old boy named Johnny Mercer, who lived a block away and would grow up to become one of America’s greatest songwriters, began stopping by the shop regularly for ice cream. He asked Peter for a job and began sweeping floors for a quarter a week.

Mercer became so enthralled with the Tutti Frutti flavor, he told Peter that one day he would write a song about it. Jazz duo Slim & Slam, and later, Little Richard beat him to it with their own versions, but whenever Johnny was home from Hollywood as an adult, he always returned to Leopold’s to listen to local drawls for lyrical inspiration while he ate a bowl of Tutti Frutti.

Excerpt from Leopold’s Ice Cream: A Century of Tasty Memories, 1919-2019, foreword by President Jimmy Carter, by Melanie Bowden Simón.

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