Sipping sweet floats on vacation

August 14, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

The black cows were my brother Tom's idea. Four years ago, my parents, three sisters, two brothers and assorted spouses and children - 18 people in all - took a family vacation on the Jersey shore. We were staying in a huge Victorian gingerbread house that was painted yellow and was fortuitously located one block from the ocean.

We rotated shopping and cooking duties, and the day that Tom drew the grocery shift, he returned with extras no one had thought to request: vanilla ice-cream, root beer and, best of all, straws - the bendy kind.

He set about making all of us root-beer floats, which for some unknown reason were called black cows in the Midwestern neighborhood where I grew up. It had been a long time since I had indulged in this youthful treat, but it took just one sip to remind me how much I had once loved them, and why.

Granted, this was not the root-beer float enshrined in my memory during my freshman year in college, when three bored snack-bar employees had a contest to see who could build the biggest and best float. Mine bore a distinct resemblance to the Titanic, with glacial mounds of ice cream partly submerged in a frothing sea. I don't remember which employee eventually claimed bragging rights but, without a doubt, my two roommates and I were the winners.

Those floats were so sublime because they were made with root beer from a fountain; a kind of alchemy occurs between the syrup and the carbonated water that no bottled or canned beverage can duplicate.

And yet, even homely versions have their pleasures, and one of the virtues of my brother's float that day on the Jersey shore was its simplicity: He just poured the soda over a few scoops of ice cream, stuck in a straw, and served.

There's something about the way the melting ice cream mingles with the sweetness of the root beer that far surpasses the pleasure offered by those flavors individually.

As the sky darkened, my family sat on the wraparound porch stirring and sipping, occasionally scraping root-beer-flavored ice crystals off the side of our glasses. Someone got out a deck of cards, and the adults and the children over age 7 began playing Scat, a process-of-elimination game that takes place over several rounds. Like a root-beer float, the essence of Scat is simplicity, and I like it because it reveals heretofore-unsuspected tendencies in people I have known all my life.

For instance, my youngest sister, Colleen, is a model of refinement and sensitivity, acutely aware of other people's feelings. But she wins a disproportionate amount of the time, considering that the outcome supposedly depends partly on chance. After she collected the $24 pot for the first game, Colleen pumped both fists in the air, shouted, "Woo-hoo!" and did an obnoxious little victory lap around the table.

The second game didn't wind up until nearly midnight. Nominally, the final two contestants were my two brothers, but it soon became clear that Jim's then-8-year-old daughter had inherited her dad's talent for working the room. Just before the last round, Jenny raised her lovely brown eyes to me and said, "Aunt Mary Carole, if you help my dad win, you can have half his earnings." Clearly, a brilliant future awaits my niece at Enron.

I don't often win at Scat, but I'm also usually not the first to fall. And in my family, we have a tradition that the first person eliminated has to serve all the other players drinks.

Next time, I'm ordering a root-beer float.

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