Have A (Black) Cow

Coca-Cola floats aren't just for kids, Test Kitchen Director Farideh Sadeghin salutes the soda fountain classic

Black Cow
Farideh Sadeghin

To keep my sister and I cool during the summer, my grandfather had a very special trick that he used when we stayed at his house. Amanda and I shared my mom’s childhood room when we visited, where we'd drift off to sleep in two twin beds next to each other. And sometimes—not every night, but once a trip—Grandpa would wake us around 12 A.M. for our midnight snack: Black Cows.

A Black Cow is simple, really. Just soda (we used Coca-Cola) with vanilla ice cream. You might call it a root beer float or an ice cream soda. In New Zealand and Australia, they call it a Spider, and in the UK, it’s known as a coke float. If you make it with 7-Up or Sprite, it turns into a Snow White.

The origins of the drink are debateable, but as far as I can tell, a guy called Robert McCay Green invented it in 1874 in Philadelphia when he ran out of ice to put in sodas at an exposition. The drink became quite popular, although soda fountains could not sell it on Sundays. Carbonated drinks were thought to be some sort of miraculous cure-all, and thus soda was a substance that required minor control, like alcohol. This, coincidentally, gave rise to a different delicious dessert for Sundays, made without soda at all: the Ice Cream Sundae.

But back to my personal summer cool-down treat and story.

We'd stand there quietly in the dark, spoon in hand, shoveling as much ice cream and soda into our mouths as fast as we possibly could

My grandfather would tiptoe (I assume this is what he would do, but I can’t be sure since I was sleeping, after all) into the room Amanda and I shared and gently wake us up. We would crawl out of bed and make our way to the kitchen, trying hard not to giggle at our sneaky midnight kitchen antics. Three glasses would already be waiting for us on the counter, the ice cream next to them with a pool of sweat forming around the base of the container (did he take it out to eat some ice cream alone in the darkness before waking us? Smart man, if he did. I certainly would.) Then, he'd open the refrigerator door, the florescent light blinding us in the darkness, and pull out the Coca-Cola. Into the glasses (they were tall) he would scoop some ice cream, and then pour soda right over the top, the foam nearly cascading over the rim of the glass as it raced up the sides. We usually wouldn’t even sit—we'd stand there quietly in the dark, spoon in hand, shoveling as much ice cream and soda into our mouths as fast as we possibly could before our parents (but mainly we were worried most about Grammi) could discover us.

I have to admit, I didn't even really like Black Cows at the time. They always made me feel a little sick (it probably had something to do with the speed we sucked them down—and the soda carbonation). But it didn’t matter. It was a secret tradition, and the excitement of sneaking around that house in the middle of the night, avoiding the eyes and ears of my grandmother, is something I have never forgotten.