The term “Black Cow” originally referred not to root beer floats, but to the root beer itself.
Root beer has been around for a long time — similar “small beers” (fermented beverages that were intentionally low in alcohol) had been made in Europe for centuries. They were flavored with all sorts of botanicals, such as birch, ginger, lemon, and spruce (birch beer and ginger ale are still with us, but lemon has migrated to other soft drinks, and spruce beer has disappeared — except in parts of Canada, where it’s known as bière d’épinette). The early settlers in the New World noticed Native Americans making use of trees that had never been seen in Europe: Sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata) and Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and altered their recipes, also substituting the raw material, molasses (from the Caribbean), for the more expensive loaf sugar then available for import from Europe. Sarsaparilla survives as a soft drink, ‘though it has never achieved the popularity of root beer. Root beer’s earliest surviving recipe is from 1869 (in Dr. Chase’s Recipes), ‘though it had been brewed in people’s households for over a century.
Joseph Priestley, the English chemist, discovered that carbon dioxide could be dissolved in cold water, thereby inventing soda water, in 1767. Early in the next century, carbonated waters (artificially-produced versions of the waters then popular at various springs and spas around the world) were believed to promote to good health. Some of the best-known carbonated soft drinks today — such as Dr Pepper (1885) and Coca Cola (1886) — were originally formulated as medicines, and were produced as syrups (many people still drink ginger ale when they have upset stomachs). By the end of the nineteenth century, these syrups were combined with soda water —and the connection with the old alcoholic small beers was permanently severed. This was fortuitous, since there was, at the time, a growing temperance movement. Soda fountains were considered more acceptable locations for social gathering than saloons.
By the 1860s, cream, or cream and flavored syrup, were added to cold soda water, and marketed as “iced cream sodas,” but actual ice cream was not yet an ingredient (a parallel example is the “egg cream” soda, that has never contained eggs). Several people claim to have invented ice cream sodas — such as Fred Sanders and Philip Mohr —but the credit usually goes to Robert Green. In 1874, he operated a soda fountain at Philadelphia’s fair celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of The Franklin Institute. When he ran out of cream, he thought of substituting melted ice cream, but had so many customers that he couldn’t take the time to melt the ice cream. Green himself provided a different account of his invention in a 1910 article, claiming that he had run out of ice, and had merely substituted ice cream from another booth to keep his sodas cold.
It was not until 1893 that the idea for substituting root beer for soda in the already-popular ice cream sodas (notice that the “d” in “iced cream sodas” had been lost along the way). The credit for that goes to Frank Wisner of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Supposedly (for the only accounts of the story are found in advertising from Wisner’s own company), one moonlit night he was gazing at the darkened Cow Mountain, when its snow-capped peak suggested the idea of floating vanilla ice cream on root beer. He called his creation “Black Cow Mountain,” but popular usage quickly shortened it to “Black Cow,” and “Black Cow” was forgotten as a name for the root beer itself.
A Few Variations on Soda Fountain Treats
Modified Egg Cream
Most of us can no longer have siphons of real seltzer delivered to our door by the seltzerman (mine, when I lived on NYC’ Upper West Side, ages ago, was called “Gimme Seltzer”). But you can still make something like the egg creams of blessed memory.
Shoot a generous squirt of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup into the bottom of a tall glass, followed by an ounce or so of milk. It must be whole milk or you won’t get decent foam. Give it a stir (don’t overdo it; leave a little smear of chocolate syrup on the inside of the glass for authenticity. Pour in bottled seltzer, and give it another quick stir.
Egg cream traditionalists will be horrified, but try this sometime with flavored seltzer. I’m particularly fond of mandarin orange egg creams.
Creamsicle in a Glass
Drop a scoop of good vanilla ice cream, not too hard, into a tall glass. Top with orange soda (I prefer Hannaford’s Blood Orange Soda; it provides a wonderful pink color). Top with some whipped cream from an aerosol can. You could use real homemade whipped cream, but you’ll miss out on the whooshing sound that triggers this Pavlovian trip down gustatory memory lane.
A Slushie for Grown-ups
Fill a champagne flute about 1/3 full of slightly-soften lemon Italian ice. Top with prosecco. Be prepared for some overflow. If you want to show off for guests, add a sprig of mint – but you really won’t need it. They’ll love it just as it is.
This article originally appeared, in somewhat different form, at LeitesCulinaria.com, and is used here by permission.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us