Frozen Friday: 'I'm Related to the Makers of Häagen-Dazs'

In 1984 President Ronald Reagan declared July National Ice Cream Month. In honor of the month, we’ll be celebrating this delicious food each week with Frozen Fridays, a series about Jews and ice cream.

Until one of us makes the big time, my family’s singular claim to fame is that we’re related to Reuben and Rose Mattus, the Jewish couple who created Häagen-Dazs, peddling ice cream through New York in the early 20th century.

The connection is through marriage: my grandmother Muriel Zeveloff’s brother married a woman named Ruth Lipitz, whose first cousin was Reuben Mattus. Every person in that last sentence is dead except my grandmother, Muriel, who sat at a table with Reuben and Rose at a family wedding years ago. “He was a very nice man,” my grandmother said over the phone yesterday. “He and his wife were in the ice cream business.”

Reuben and Rose Mattus were in the ice cream business and, growing up, I was in the business of telling everyone I knew about this tenuous family tie. When asked to share an interesting fact about myself during bunk introductions at summer camp, I said that I was related to the inventors of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. When I played “two truths and a lie,” the family connection was invariably one of my “truths.” Most recently, this information made its way into my online dating profile.

I have never received a lick of free ice cream because of my relation to Reuben and Rose Mattus, but I have milked the connection for all its worth. This small bit of information has done more to grease the wheels of my social life than Clearasil or orthodonture. Though I have never met them, I owe Reuben and Rose Mattus a debt of gratitude. Today, in honor of National Ice Cream Month, here is their story:

Reuben and Rose were distantly related Polish Jews who moved to Brooklyn and married in 1936. Though the Häagen-Dazs web site would have you believe that it was Reuben’s advanced palate that foretold the couple’s success, the truth is that Reuben got into the ice cream business because it was a lucrative way to start out in America. When Reuben first hitched his horse to a wagon and began hawking his mother’s ice cream to restaurants in the Bronx, he joined a small group of Jewish ice cream vendors who roamed the city, cooling summer fevers with an icy treat.

Reuben sold the family’s ice cream for three decades before forging his own path. While most ice cream manufacturers cut costs by concocting a sweet, milky mixture that could barely pass for ice cream, Reuben created a fatty, dense ice cream in three flavors — chocolate, vanilla, and coffee — and marketed it to the city’s upscale restaurants. Rose came up with a vaguely Scandinavian name. Häagen-Dazs has no meaning; in fact, the umlat above the first ‘a’ and the combined ‘zs’ are unheard of in Scandinavian languages. Nonetheless, the couple slapped a map of Scandinavia on the lid of the ice cream containers and New Yorkers got a taste of the “European” delicacy.

“By word of mouth,” it became popular, “people tasted it and it was really good,” said Harriet Leitz, Reuben’s first cousin. “When you compared the ice cream, one was like garbage and the other was like cream.”

The couple opened their first store in Brooklyn in 1976. Soon after, a series of copycat companies sprung up. Another cousin started the ill-fated Frusen Glädjé, which actually means something — “frozen delight” — in Swedish, and Reuben tried unsuccessfully to sue the company for trying to sow confusion among ice cream consumers. Frusen Glädjé also copied Häagen-Dazs’ tactic of prominently displaying its slim list of ingredients on the packaging. From the beginning, Häagen-Dazs prided itself on its simple recipe of fresh cream, milk, and eggs.

In 1983, Reuben and Rose sold the company to Pillsbury, which was bought out by General Mills in 2001. (Dreyer’s, a subsidiary of Nestle, now makes the ice cream in the U.S. and Canada.) The couple made a fortune, and spent much of it supporting Israel through right-wing causes, funding organizations devoted to bringing Jews from Europe and Asia to settle the West Bank. Rose in particular became a fixture in Zionist circles, sitting on the board of the Zionist Organizations of America.

According to Leitz, who became close with Rose after Reuben died in 1994, Rose was friends with Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, hosting them in her apartment when they came to New York City.

In spite of the family connection, my parents rarely bought Häagen-Dazs ice cream when I was growing up. I realized yesterday that it had been years since a spoonful of Häagen-Dazs had passed my lips.

After I got off the subway on my way home last night, I walked into a 24-hour bodega near the subway station. Containers of ice cream were strewn willy nilly in the freezer at the back of the store. I plumbed my hand into the icy depths and pulled up a pint of Häagen-Dazs chocolate chocolate chip.

The container sweated in my hand on the way home. It was yellow and red and labeled like a bottle of wine with “finish notes” of “lingering smokey cocoa.”

When I got home, I popped the lid, peeled back the plastic covering, and dug a spoon inside. The ice cream was sweet but not too sweet, with little flecks of dark chocolate. It was rich, but not enough to prohibit several bites in quick succession. I sighed with delight. Just the thing for a sweltering New York night.

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