Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (2024)



Sasha Khokha

Failed to save article

Please try again

Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (1)

Fenton's Creamery still makes its ice cream in small batches, by hand. The creamery claims to have invented Rocky Road in 1929. So does Dryer's, which was headquartered just down the road in Oakland. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

It’s hard to imagine in this era of salted caramel and matcha tea, but there was a time when the American ice cream palate was limited to chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Theinvention of Rocky Road in the 1920s changed the ice cream game with “mix-ins”: adding the bumpy texture of nuts, and the soft, pillowy chew of marshmallows.

Even though nearly a century has passed since Rocky Road was invented, it is still beloved and immortalized by the likes of “Weird Al”Yankovic:

But there’s still a dispute over just who thought up the recipe for Rocky Road ice cream:Fenton’s Creameryor Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream. The one certain thing is that the flavorwas invented in Oakland, California.

An Antidote to the Great Depression

Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (2)

“So the real story goes: there was a man named William Dreyer. He was a German immigrant. He loved making ice cream and so he made it out of a candy shop,” said Local Tour Adventures guide Lauren Herpich, whom I joined for an ice cream tour of College Avenue — a tiny shopping district running through North Oakland.

The street is home to the original headquarters of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, which was founded in 1928.

A year after its opening, the American stock market crashed. Shantytowns consequently developed along Oakland’s waterfront.

“So William Dreyer decides ‘what I want to do is make a new ice cream flavor that puts a smile on people’s faces during this rocky road of life. Aha!’” Herpich exclaimed to the tour group as she handed out little cups of Rocky Road for us to sample.

“Rocky Road becomes America’s first blockbuster ice cream flavor after chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. So really, we can say thanks to Mr. Dreyer for starting the whole idea of new ice cream flavors.”

That is the official story from Dreyer’s, too, and William Dreyer — working with candy maker Joseph Edy — came up with the slogan “Share a scoop, share a smile.”

Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (3)

Dreyer apparently figured out how to cut up the marshmallows with his wife’s sewing shears and folded them into chocolate ice cream. The story is repeated by John Harrison, the guy who invented Cookies ‘N Cream ice cream and some 75 other new flavors for Dreyer’s starting in the 1980s. Harrison used to sample flavors with a gold spoon, and his taste buds were famously insured for a million dollars.

“[It was] the first time marshmallow was ever used in ice cream,” Harrison told an interviewer in 2011. He was also part of an oral history project with UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, documenting the long history of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream in Oakland.

“But the only marshmallow that was available in 1929 was the large fireside marshmallow that their wives used to cut up, bite-size. You can’t put a whole. Wouldn’t work,” Harrison explained, making gummy chewing sounds.

Harrison said William Dreyer adapted a popular candy of the period, made with marshmallows and walnuts — using almonds instead.

Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (4)

“The candy and ice cream industry has been interwoven since day one,” Harrison said. “Originally, it was walnuts, but it didn’t have that bite, that crispness, that freshness, lasting. It’s too porous. It absorbs and gets soggy. “

Dreyer’s has expanded well beyond Oakland since. It was bought by Nestle in 2002 and its ice cream is stocked in nearly every supermarket freezer (either as Dreyer’s or Edy’s on the East Coast.) Nestlé continues to market the brand and the claim that Dreyer invented Rocky Road.

Walnuts vs. Almonds

Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (5)

Just down the road from where Dreyer’s got its start in Oakland, there’s another much smaller ice cream company that also claims to have invented Rocky Road.

Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (6)

At Fenton’s Creamery, owner and master blender Scott Whidden holds a tub under a spigot churning out fresh chocolate ice cream. He puts in fistfuls of nuts and marshmallows that he scoops from plastic tubs. He, however, adds walnuts instead of almonds — just like the original candy bar.

“I’m looking for equal parts [in each bite],” explained Whidden over the whirring ice cream machine. “If you have a marshmallow, I want you to have maybe one or two of the walnuts,” he said.

Whidden said small-batch and handmade is the way Fenton’s has made its ice cream since the 1920s.

That, he said, is when Melvin Fenton — grandson of the original owner — came up with the idea for Rocky Road. There’s a picture of him in the parlor, where dozens of families are sitting in red vinyl booths enjoying giant sundaes in old-fashioned glass dishes. In the photo, Melvin Fenton is loading fresh cream off of a tiny airplane that he flew as an amateur pilot.

“Melvin was like the black sheep of the family,” said Whidden. More like a wildcat and an inventor who could see beyond the trifecta of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.

Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (7)

“He’s a visionary,” said Whidden. “Forward-thinking guy. And he goes, ‘Whoa. Mix-ins!’ So the thought process on it was, we’re into the depression, it’s bad times. Smooth ice cream, and then there’s these bumps, it gets rocky.”

That sounds familiar: Rocky Road, the bumpy road of life during the Depression. Chocolate, marshmallows, nuts.

An Ice Cream Expert Weighs In

Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (8)

These days, Rocky Road is still one of Fenton’s top-selling flavors. They serve it up in giant scoops and decadent sundaes. When I visited Fenton’s,Amy Ettinger and I ordered sundaes with whipped cream and cherries —gleefully fishing for the walnuts and marshmallows. Ettinger is an ice cream historian, the author of “Sweet Spot, An Ice Cream Binge Across America.”

“It’s very common in ice cream history to have these kinds of disputes,” said Ettinger. “The 1904 World’s Fair was when the ice cream cone was invented and six different vendors claimed that they were the ones who invented it. Unless you have a time machine, or you know you were actually the inventor, there’s no way really to tell.”

Ettinger said Rocky Road is the flavor of her childhood. But not this Rocky Road: the Dreyer’s with the almonds you can buy at the grocery store. She said she feels a little sheepish saying that, because it’s kind of a David and Goliath story: the mom and pop parlor versus what is today a multinational giant.

“What’s very interesting is Fenton’s is a very beloved Bay Area institution,” said Ettinger. “But it is not well known outside of the Bay Area. So regardless of who actually invented it, Dreyer’s is hands down the marketer of Rocky Road. They built their brand on the invention and the marketing of Rocky Road. Just because the other company is the one that got the word out about it, doesn’t mean that Fenton’s didn’t invent it. There’s no way for us to know.”

Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (9)

There are other theories too:

Our Golden State Plate series

Golden State Plate: Rocky Road Ice Cream's Bumpy History | KQED (2024)


What is the history of Rocky Road ice cream? ›

According to one source, the flavor was created in March 1929 by William Dreyer in Oakland, California when he cut up walnuts and marshmallows with his wife's sewing scissors and added them to his chocolate ice cream in a manner that reflected how his partner Joseph Edy's chocolate candy creation incorporated walnuts ...

What are the chunks in Rocky Road ice cream? ›

Rocky road ice cream is a beloved classic American ice cream flavor made of chocolate ice cream studded with toasted almonds and mini marshmallows.

When did Rocky Road bars come out? ›

The history of the Rocky Road candy bar goes back to 1950. It was in this year that Russian immigrant Sam Altshuler started the Annabelle Candy Company in San Francisco, California.

Why is Rocky Road ice cream so good? ›

Our founders created this classic almost 100 years ago and we continue honor it with every scoop! We start with our classic chocolate ice cream, and fold in crunchy almonds and bite size chewy marshmallows for the perfect scoop every time.

What does rocky road ice cream say about you? ›

If you're a rocky road ice cream lover, you're probably someone who has a lot going on beneath the surface. You're a creative and imaginative person who sees the world in a unique and nuanced way. You're also an emotional individual who isn't afraid to feel deeply and express your feelings honestly.

What is the difference between Rocky Road and Heavenly Hash ice cream? ›

Basically, both are chocolate ice cream with marshmallow and almonds. The difference seems to be 1) Heavenly Hash also includes some type of chocolate add-in, and 2) Rocky Road is chunkier: whole nuts, whole globs of marshmallow, where Heavenly Hash is more diced nuts and a marshmallow swirl and chocolate flecks.

What substance is Rocky Road ice cream? ›

What Is Rocky Road Ice Cream? Rocky road is chocolate ice cream with marshmallows and nuts. The ice cream variety was invented in 1929 by William Dreyer, who was inspired by Joseph Edy's nut- and marshmallow-filled chocolate bars.

What kind of nuts do they put in Rocky Road ice cream? ›

This rich chocolate ice cream loaded with almonds and heaps of miniature marshmallows is a classic favorite that's fun to share.

What are the white chunks in ice cream? ›

Question: What causes the presence of white particles in melted ice cream? Answer: Such particles are either destabilized protein (the explanation behind the industry's use of the term "curdy" to describe such a condition) or structures of agglomerated fat.

What brand is selling the original Rocky Road? ›

The Original Rocky Road Ice Cream | Dreyer's® Rocky Road.

What is in Rocky Road ice cream Blue Bell? ›

Milk, cream, skim milk, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, almonds (almonds, canola oil, salt), marshmallows [corn syrup, sugar, modified food starch (corn), water, gelatin, tetrasodium pyrophosphate (improves whipping)], cocoa (processed with alkali), cellulose gum, vegetable gums (guar, carrageenan, carob bean), salt.

Why is blue moon ice cream blue? ›

Much like Coca-Cola, the official recipe for blue moon ice cream is shrouded in secrecy. But homemade recipes for blue moon ice cream (such as this one from Serious Eats) call for raspberry and lemon flavorings along with vanilla pudding mix, egg yolks, sugar, heavy cream, vanilla extract, and blue food coloring.

What is a fun fact about Rocky Road ice cream? ›

William Dreyer, back in the year 1929, decided to chop walnuts and marshmallows in pieces. He mixed these into his ice cream, which was chocolatey in flavor. Later that year, when the stock market crashed, the name of the flavor became 'rocky road,' in order to give people something to smile about.

What happened to Edy's ice cream? ›

Call it the final scoop in the great ice cream meltdown. Nestlé agreed to sell its U.S. ice cream operations for $4 billion. The deal includes Häagen-Dazs, Edy's and Drumstick cones.

Where did Rocky Road originate? ›

The flavor Rocky Road has had a long history that started in Australia sometime around 1853. After making the long trip from Europe, many candies and sweets were less than desirable. Businessmen thought of ways to sell them: mixing all the ingredients together.

What is the history of Streets Ice Cream? ›

Streets ice cream was originally made in the back shed by Ted Street. He would then sell these to neighbours along with sweets, cakes and lemonade. Popularity grew, and he soon used a cart, then a one horsepower motorbike, to sell Streets ice cream.

What is the difference between Rocky Road and S mores ice cream? ›

Rocky Road Ice Cream is a divine cold combination of chocolate, toasted almonds and marshmallows. S'mores is a warm treat with melted chocolate and toasted marshmallows sandwiched between two graham crackers. Deconstructed Rocky Road S'mores is the best of both!!

What is the difference between Double Dutch and Rocky Road? ›

Double Dutch: Vanilla ice cream with cashews, chocolate chips, marshmallows & chocolate sauce. Rocky Road: Chocolate ice cream with marshmallows & peanuts.

Did Fentons invent Rocky Road? ›

According to company lore, Melvin Fenton, grandson of Fentons founder Elbridge Seth (E.S.) Fenton, was the first person to invent rocky road ice cream.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Cheryll Lueilwitz

Last Updated:

Views: 5791

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (74 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Cheryll Lueilwitz

Birthday: 1997-12-23

Address: 4653 O'Kon Hill, Lake Juanstad, AR 65469

Phone: +494124489301

Job: Marketing Representative

Hobby: Reading, Ice skating, Foraging, BASE jumping, Hiking, Skateboarding, Kayaking

Introduction: My name is Cheryll Lueilwitz, I am a sparkling, clean, super, lucky, joyous, outstanding, lucky person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.