At the end of this article, I am going to teach you a magic trick. I will demonstrate a 3-step method for cramming a one-ton organic lawnmower into ordinary barware. But first, I have a story to tell.
Last year, an extraordinary woman named Donna Runge said something that I have been obsessing over ever since. If you hear me out, I think you will too. It's just a slight turn of phrase, but there's a world of mystery and mythology behind it.
In this interview, starting at the 1:50 timestamp, Donna says, "[w]hen the war ended--I was six by then--things loosened up and my father as a treat would take us to one of the drive-ins and order a root beer float, or as we knew it back then, a black cow."
Dona Runge, Root Beer Oracle
A black cow. Where the heck did that come from? I'd heard the phrase before, but coming out of someone else's mouth, it suddenly sounded strange.
Growing up, I would have the occasional black cow on the back porch in the summertime. My parents called it that, and that's because their parents called it that. I just assumed everyone called it that, but it turns out that's not the case.
Before I dive into the story, a quick note on Donna. Her claim to fame is that she pushed Randy Sprecher, the founder of Sprecher Brewery, to start making the best root beer in America. Her interview is well worth a watch. But before you click away, you should hear me out on the ballad of the black cow.
Who calls Root Beer Floats Black Cows?
My first rude awakening was finding out that 'black cow' is very much a regional term. I spent most of my life thinking the whole English-speaking world knew a black cow was more than just a barnyard animal. For cripes' sake, it's in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary!
However, Google Trends put the lie to my belief. This is a heatmap of the states that googled "Root Beer Float" over the past decade:
via Google Trends
As you can see, the whole country loves that term. Next, I looked at searches including the words "black cow" that led to clicks on pages about non-alcoholic beverages:
via Google Trends
Apparently, the black cow is best known in the great lakes region, with outposts in Nebraska and Montana and a weak following elsewhere.
That's not the end of the terminology, though. A few sources, like Megan Wenzl's article on Root Beer Floats from the Chicago Eater, noted that some folks use the term 'brown cow' instead. The brown cow map looks a little different; the term has a stranglehold on Vermont and some prominence in the Pacific Northwest with a smaller following spread thinly across the country.
via Google Trends
Google Trends is not a perfect tool for this job, but the basic truth is clear: not everyone drinks black cows. Some people drink brown cows, and most people drink plain old root beer floats. How did this happen?
Who Invented the Black Cow?
There is a wonderful legend about the invention of the root beer float and the name "black cow," and it goes like this:
One night in 1893, Frank J. Wisner of Cripple Creek, Colorado was looking out at Cow Mountain through the window of his drinking establishment, Cripple Creek Brewing Company. The snow cap on the dark mountain made him think of ice cream floating in root beer, so he made the drink and christened it "the black cow" after the mountain that inspired him. The drink was a hit with the kids in town, and the rest, as they say, was history.
A map of Cripple Creek, CO and the surrounding mountains via Wikimedia Commons
It's a neat story, and it is repeated in a wide range of publications: Tasting Table, The South Florida Reporter, The Pikes Peak Courier, the aforementioned Chicago Eater, and even Wikipedia. The trouble is, all of these sources cite each other, or link back to websites that are now defunct. There is no primary source to be found, at least not easily.
There's another wrinkle in the story, too. According to Google Trends, Colorado is not black cow country. It's barely even brown cow country. What gives?
Colorado: Definitively not black cow country
Undeterred, I contacted the president of the Pikes Peak Historical Society, the leading historical society in Teller County, where Cripple Creek is located. I asked after any primary sources on Frank J Wisner. The president of the society didn't know, but graciously referred me to the Cripple Creek District Museum. The director there was also kind enough to answer my email, but his response was simply this: "I'm [not] sure who the source [of the Wisner story] was, but that's the story that's been told over the years." A perfectly fair answer, but not hard evidence.
In a desperate attempt to come away with something, I frantically searched Google Maps for a root beer float in Cripple Creek. I came across a restaurant called The Creek that serves a root beer float and calls it a black cow. This is the only shred of evidence I could find, and it's a thin one.
The Wisner story is fun, and possibly true, but at this point it looks more apocryphal than anything. Maybe Wisner made a root beer float, maybe he called it a brown cow, and maybe that's why a local restaurant still calls it by that name when the majority of the state does not.
The President of the Pikes Peak Historical Society tells me that Cripple Creek celebrates the invention of the black cow every year, and I will not be the person to rain on their parade.
That said, I couldn't help but wonder how the term got such a strong foothold in the great lakes region, and why it isn't really used in much of Colorado today. So I pressed on.
The Invention of the Ice Cream Float
Sometimes, two things can be true. It can be true that Wisner invented the black cow, and also true that someone else did. In the days when news traveled on the pony express, two different people could have come up with a new (to them) idea for a soft drink.
This is where the origin story of the ice cream float becomes important. The invention of the ice cream float precedes the invention of the black cow, and the evidence for it is a little more solid. A Tasting Table article on the subject cites a now-defunct trade journal for soda fountain owners that credits one Robert M. Green with the invention of the ice cream float.
Allegedly, Green bought some ice cream for lunch at the 1876 Philadelphia World's Fair, took it back to the soda fountain stand where he was a clerk, and came up with the bright idea to put the ice cream in the soda. Tasting Table found another version of the story that dates the invention to 1874, but the invention is still attributed to Green in Philadelphia.
Robert M. Green, via Ranger95.com
Pennsylvania is firmly in black cow territory, and although Pennsylvanians are not especially dedicated to the term these days, that could be because the first East Coast black cow was made in New York City. Maybe. Hear me out.
How the Float became the Cow in the Great Lakes
Robert M. Green's invention is no proof that the black cow was invented separately in the great lakes region, but it does lend support to the idea. Another bit of support is the lingo of soda jerks. The soda jerk is a figure I've covered elsewhere, but soda jerks are always worth a mention whether you've heard of them or not.
According to Natasha Frost of Gastro Obscura, soda jerks were soda fountain employees who served all sorts of sweet treats over the counters of America's tens of thousands of soda fountains in the 1930s and '40s.
A soda jerk slinging some cow via Wikimedia Commons
Soda fountains were spread out all across the country, but they were concentrated in New York City, and in 1938 New Yorkers consumed no less than 20,000,000 gallons of ice cream. A lot of that was served in ice cream floats.
Frost spends the bulk of her article discussing the lingo used by soda jerks, which was showmanlike and colorful, part of the draw of going to a soda fountain. Frost notes that a soda jerk might call "[a] simple glass of milk ... 'cow juice,' bovine exract,' or 'canned cow.'"
At this point, it only takes three small leaps of the imagination to pinpoint the invention of the black cow to New York City:
First, one has to imagine that the idea of the ice cream float traveled from Philadelphia to New York City faster than it traveled from a frontier town in Colorado to New York City.
Second, one has to imagine that one of NYC's thousands of soda jerks thought it was entertaining to call ice cream in dark soda a "black cow."
Third, one has to imagine that the idea rode the rails to the industrial cities of the great lakes before a Cripple Creek native came evangelizing from the west.
From there, the black cow likely took off in Illinois and Wisconsin. With Wisconsin being America's Dairyland, and Chicago being at the crossroads of the Upper Midwest's roads and rails, it would make sense that Illinois and Wisconsin would go on to become the black cow heartland of the present day (and they definitely are!).
This is pure speculation, but it is the best case I can come up with from my desk in Glendale, WI. So, as far as I'm concerned, I rest my case. The black cow was almost certainly invented at least twice, but the black cow I know and love was born somewhere on the eastern seaboard--probably the Big Apple.
For my Last Trick...
This is all well and good, but I promised a magic trick up top, and maybe that's why you came here in the first place. I will put away my ranting and raving and teach you how to fit a black cow into a mug in three easy steps.
- Put a proper glass mug in the freezer and wait 5-10 minutes
- Remove the mug from the freezer and add a couple of generous scoops of good quality vanilla ice cream
- Pour in the best root beer in America
Presto! You have a black cow in a mug.
A black cow in a mug courtesy of Sprecher Brewery's very own Miguel Quesada