Only In Massachusetts is an occasional series where Patch tries to find answers to questions about life in Massachusetts. Have a question about the Bay State that needs answering? Send it to email@example.com.
When reader David Rosen asked “Only In Massachusetts” why residents in most parts of the state use the term “frappe” for what almost everyone else calls a milkshake, I thought it was a slam dunk. After all, a year ago at this time I was ghostwriting a proposal for a book by a well-known ice cream maker. And there are no shortage of ice cream experts in Massachusetts, given this is a cold-weather state where ice cream is still a year-round treat.
Nearly everywhere else in the U.S., a milkshake is milk, ice cream and syrup blended together. But in Massachusetts, that’s a recipe for a frappe. A milkshake in these parts is just milk and syrup, shaken or blended until a foamy head appears. There are scores of former ice cream servers who have “Who’s On First?” stories about trying to explain the difference to out-of-state customers.
Since Rosen sent his question earlier this month, I have talked with food historians and linguists who specialize in New England words and dialects. I went through old newspapers on microfiche to see if I could find old ads for Brigham’s and other New England ice cream shops to find early mentions of the word. I have searched peer-reviewed academic journals on etymology and I even paid $50 for a subscription to the Dictionary of American Regional English.
I found a reference to a “New England chain of ice-cream parlors (that) served a frappe,” but it did not name the business. There was a similar, and just as useless, tidbit about a “famous ice cream parlor” in Brooklyn with frappes on its menu in the 1950s. I know people in northern New England sometimes call frappes “velvets,” and Rhode Islanders call them “cabinets,” presumably because you kept the blender used to make them in a cabinet.
Milkshakes as we (in Massachusetts) know them first start showing up on menus in the 1890s, and the recipe was universal in the U.S.: milk and syrup. Before the 1890s it was a cocktail with milk, syrup, a shot of whiskey “and, often, an egg.” But as people started adding ice cream to the point it was a standard ingredient by the 1920s, the name milkshake was still used. Used everywhere, that is, except for Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, milkshakes are still milkshakes but when you add ice cream, it becomes a frappe (which rhymes with flap, not flambe).
Brigham’s, which closed its last restaurant in 2015, made a point of distinguishing the differences between the two drinks on its menus. When a customer ordered a milkshake, servers were trained to tell them it did not include ice cream. But the regional ice cream chain of choice in greater Boston these days, J.P. Licks, just has milkshakes on its menu. And the J.P. Licks version has ice cream in it.
Frappes, floats, milkshakes, malts, sundaes, and ice cream sodas all had their heyday in the first half of the 20th century. Every town had at least one soda fountain, and the temperance movement pushed ice cream drinks as a replacement for alcohol. Indeed, many bars converted to soda fountains during prohibition.
“Frosted milkshakes,” which were milkshakes with “a dollop of ice cream” blended in start showing up on menus in different parts of the country in the early 1900s. And by the 1920s, as home blenders became affordable and people realized a drink with ice cream is always better than a drink without ice cream, the “frosted” was dropped.
The pressing question, though, remains unanswered: When did we in Massachusetts start using the term frappe and why? And why do we keep using it? If you have any ideas, please email me or give me a call.
Dave Copeland is Patch’s regional editor for Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 617-433-7851. Follow him on Twitter (@CopeWrites) and Facebook (/copewrites).