Considering cereal and milk’s longstanding love affair, it’s no surprise that ice cream and cereal have long been a winning combination. Fruity Pebbles and Cap’n Crunch routinely appear among topping options at ice cream and frozen yogurt shops around the country. Christina Tosi and Milk Bar made cereal milk-flavored ice cream famous, often topping the breakfast-turned-dessert with Corn Flakes for crunch.
But a decidedly less popular cereal also has a history with ice cream, and its reach extends from Canada to the Caribbean. Long marketed as a health food, Grape-Nuts originated in the late 19th century, and the story of its rise to popularity as an ice cream flavor is almost as confusing as its name. There are neither grapes nor nuts in this Post cereal, which is actually made from a mixture of grains: Malted barley flour, whole-grain wheat flour, salt, and dried yeast give the cereal its signature toasted flavor.
This unusual ice cream flavor, marked by a strong maltiness, has a loyal following in a few regions, including the Northeast United States. “I’ve always seen it on menus around New England, and I’ve lived here most of my life,” said Tammy Donroe, a Boston-area writer and cookbook author.
Here now, a look at the origins of Grape-Nuts ice cream, how it became popular, and where to get it — plus how to make it at home, for those who don’t live in an area where it’s as common as rocky road or cookies ‘n cream.
What is Grape-Nuts ice cream?
Grape-Nuts ice cream, also sometimes called “grain nut,” typically involves a vanilla base with the cereal mixed in. It’s then left in the freezer overnight, allowing the crumbles of cereal soften slightly. Producers of the flavor, including Gracie’s Ice Cream near Boston, will sometimes coat the cereal in sugar to prevent it from getting soggy.
Where and when was it created?
When Grape-Nuts landed in stores in 1898, the cereal was peddled as a health food. Battle Creek, Michigan-based Post Cereal — the brand also responsible for popular varieties like Fruity Pebbles, Honey Bunches of Oats, and Shredded Wheat — brought the brand to market and still makes it today. According to food historian Sarah Lohman, Grape-Nuts was “one of the very first packaged breakfast cereals,” and after its launch, Post marketed it in part through recipe contests, prompting folks to incorporate the dense crumbles into everything from meatloaf to pudding.
The cereal made its way into Canada, where according to one origin story, it fell into the hands of Hannah Young, a chef at the Palms restaurant in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. In 1919, Young reportedly ran out of fresh fruit to add to ice cream and reached instead for Grape-Nuts, according to an account written by her grandson, Paul.
That same year, the Grape-Nuts flavor appeared in an ice cream ad, where it was billed as a substitute for actual nuts and therefore a cost-saving ingredient. A recipe included in the ad suggests preparing “vanilla or any other plain flavored ice cream in the usual way,” and adding Grape-Nuts before the cream freezes hard.
Grape-Nuts ice cream has also been compared to a flavor called brown bread, which is made by soaking brown bread — or whole grain bread often flavored with molasses to ensure a deep mahogany color — in an ice cream base before churning. The flavor has origins in the United Kingdom where an ice cream recipe using crusty brown bread appeared in Mrs. Beeton’s Every-Day Cookery, published in 1907, alongside recipes for brown bread cream and brown bread pudding.
Where is Grape-Nuts ice cream most popular?
The flavor has a stronghold in New England, particularly in Maine: One Maine ice cream company, the family-owned Gifford’s Dairy Inc., has been making Grape-Nuts ice cream using the same recipe for decades, and it’s one of a handful of producers in New England to regularly offer Grape-Nuts ice cream.
While Gifford’s does not claim responsibility for inventing the ice cream flavor, it was one of the first flavors the company produced. CEO Lindsay Skilling says it was inspired by her great-grandmother’s Grape-Nut pudding recipe, which blended custard with the malty cereal. Skilling’s father and her uncle regularly ate Grape-Nuts cereal growing up, she says, and her father told her the idea may have come from “just trying it out on top of a scoop of vanilla ice cream.”
Through the years, Gifford’s version grew in popularity, particularly in Maine: “It’s loved by our customers,” Skilling says. “It’s one of those flavors that for us in Maine it sells really well, and then you get out of the state of Maine and no one really gets it.”
How far has the flavor spread?
Gifford’s distributes its Grape-Nuts ice cream to hundreds of independent ice cream shops, reaching as far south as the Carolinas and west to Indiana. Acclaimed Boston-area ice cream shop Toscanini’s also has a Grape-Nuts flavor, as does Gracie’s Ice Cream of Somerville (which, incidentally, also makes a Fruity Pebbles version).
Founder Aaron Cohen introduced the flavor to the Gracie’s lineup during its first summer in business, following its opening in fall 2014. “It’s an underrated, unassuming flavor, which people often look past, but has a bigger flavor than you’d expect if you’d had the cereal,” he says. “A lot of people who try it don’t even know what the cereal is and expect a grape or nut flavor.”
While the flavor is mostly concentrated in New England, historian Sarah Lohman has spotted the flavor at Il Laboratorio del Gelato on NYC’s Lower East Side. Elsewhere in the city, Brooklyn-based ice cream company Taste the Tropics offers a “Great Nuts” flavor, which features similar ingredients to the basic Grape-Nuts ice cream recipe with the notable addition of butterscotch. There have been other sightings of the flavor in New Jersey, Virginia, and New York, where some Mister Softee trucks keep cups of Grape-Nuts ice cream on hand.
The flavor is popular among immigrants from Jamaica, where dozens of ice cream shops and producers make versions of the flavor, including Caribbean Cream Ltd., Kremi Ice Cream, and Devon House I Scream. (Gracie’s founder Cohen says it was actually a Jamaican customer that encouraged him to add it to the shop’s flavor lineup.) A Panamanian company, Estrella Azul, also makes a Grape-Nuts flavor.
“Some of my regulars just love it,” says Shevonne Guishard-Lambert, a second generation Mister Softee truck owner whose territory includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
Across the country in Los Angeles, a popular ice cream shop makes its own version of Grape-Nuts ice cream. A customer once told Scoops founder Tai Kim about how her mother, who was from Panama, used to add Grape-Nuts to vanilla ice cream, and that gave Kim an idea. He found a recipe for brown bread ice cream in an English cookbook and decided to swap in Grape-Nuts for bread crumbs, creating what is now Scoops’ hallmark flavor, brown brown bread.
How do I get my hands on some?
Several grocery stores around the country distribute packaged Grape-Nuts ice cream, with selective availability. Gifford’s distributes its ice cream along the East Coast, and Publix in the Southeast sells packaged grain nut ice cream. Also look around for any Caribbean ice cream stores in your area — chances are one just might have a Grape-Nuts flavor.
Failing that, the flavor is easy to make at home: Simply combine any vanilla ice cream with Grape-Nuts. This can either be done during the mixing of the ice cream base (the cereal will soften a bit during freezing), or the cereal can can be sprinkled on as a topping. To keep it from getting too soft in the ice cream, toss the crumbles with a bit of sugar before mixing.
Note: Eater LA editor Matthew Kang is the owner of Scoops Westside in California and provided background on the shop and its brown brown bread ice cream flavor.
Dana Hatic is an associate editor for Eater Boston.
Editor: Whitney Filloon