The other night I was in the kitchen when my wife entered.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Making a root beer float,” I replied, gesturing to the plastic two liter bottle of A & W and the carton of vanilla ice cream sitting on the counter in front of me.
“I wonder who invented the root beer float” she pondered as she placed her empty cup in the sink and nonchalantly returned to the television program she was watching. I stood stunned and silent. What may have been an off the cuff remark by her in me revealed a gaping chasm of indifference, a shallowness in my being. For sixty years I’ve been enjoying the cold and refreshing foam and cream that are unique to the root beer float. Sixty years of frosty goodness. Sixty years of cold comfort. Sixty years of devotion, and yet never once in all that time did I ask the simple and obvious question my wife so innocently asked. How could it be, given the hundreds of hours of pleasure that RBFs have given me, that it never occurred to me to ask who, what great man, what visionary, what genius, was responsible for so much joy in my life. Whoever he was, he deserved my deepest gratitude.
I took my latest RBF with me and locked myself in my office, determined not to come out until I’d righted the wrong I’d committed on this man who’d given so much to me. A quick Wikipedia search revealed his identity: “The root beer float was invented by Robert McCay Green in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1874 during the Franklin Institute‘s semi centennial celebration.” I began to read on but the subsequent come-down from my RBf induced sugar high and my reduced attention span led me to fill in the facts with some minor enhancements and suppositions from my own imagination. But not enough to shake the basic integrity of the incredible story of this heroic man and his epic struggle that ultimately resulted in triumph and glory. In other words, I am fairly confident that some facts have made their way into my account. So, without further ado, here is the story of Robert McCay Green and his incredible journey to refreshment immortality.
Robert McCay Green is born, the only child to Bartholomew and Kate Green. His maternal grandfather, Dystonia Pebbles, is a self-made millionaire, the founder, sole proprietor, and owner of the monolithic Philadelphia Peanut Butter Company. With no sons of his own to leave his enterprise to, son-in-law Barth Green stands as the only heir to the empire. In 1819, preparing for his own retirement, Pebbles begins mentoring Barth Green to take over ownership of his vast portfolio.
The transition does not go well, however, because Barth Green, it turned out, was a complete and total idiot. Pebbles had been fooled by Green’s undeniable passion for peanut butter, and had slowly come to realize that Barth’s habit of walking down the street licking the contents of an open jar of peanut butter while smacking his lips and loudly moaning “mmmmmm,’’ while enthusiastically demonstrating a true loyalty to Pebbles’ product, ultimately was just weird..
Finally, in July, of 1831, after forgetting to remove the peanuts from the creamy peanut butter for the seventh time, a frustrated Dystonia Pebbles gives up mentoring Bartholomew and disowns him, throwing him and his young family out of the warm comfort of the palatial Pebbles estate onto the cold hardness of the street.
Times are hard and Bartholomew Green struggles. He turns to the bottle to lose himself, but it’s not until he realizes that the bottle is empty and fills it with tequila does he grow dependent on it With Barth an unreliable wage earner, Kate Green and her nine year old son Robert both take jobs, she as a shoe shine boy and Robert as a dance hall girl. Their combined income is enough to keep food over their heads and a roof on the table.
Robert develops into a good student, demonstrating an undisputed aptitude for the burgeoning food chemistry field. His Doctorate thesis, combining ham and cheese into a single sandwich, causes a stir among food chemists, who either laud his genius or curse him as a food radical, rejecting Green’s insistence that his invention would work equally well regardless of the bread, regardless of Green’s choice of a Kaiser roll in his presentation.
Several years later, in 18i59, Green shocks the world by announcing he was dedicating himself to liquids and soft, cold solids. “I believe, that that by combining an ice-cold soft solid with an equally ice cold beverage, the ultimate summer time treat could be achieved.” It was a bold statement, especially given its timing; one month after the Buchanan administration had just granted a million dollars to Phil Shake to develop a ‘”frosty, flavored dessert.”
Both efforts were stalled by the Civil War although a breakthrough was tantalizingly close when inside the icebox at the Appomattox Court House, a bottle of Sarsaparilla and a quart of vanilla cream was found. Before anyone could combine the two elements, the ice cream was quickly consumed with a cake that Robert E. Lee had baked earlier in the day as a term of the Confederacy’s surrender.
After the conclusion of the civil war, the original “cold war” between Phil Shake and Robert Green captured the attention of the entire reconstructed union, with newspapers breathlessly churning out stories about every new lead and disappointing set back the two camps endured. Just when it seemed Shake had the upper hand, he’d suffer a major setback, like when he tried to mix chocolate ice cream with a vinyl automobile floor mat.
Green’s journey was no less perilous. Although he settled on Root Beer as a vital ingredient early on, he had trouble finding a cooling agent, and tried dry ice with disastrous results, killing three testers.
Finally, in1874 while walking in downtown Philadelphia with a mug of root beer in his hand, Green turned a corner and ran into none other than Phil Shake, who was enjoying a vanilla ice cream cone. They collided with such force they both fell to the sidewalk.
“Hey, “ Green said, “you got ice cream all over my root beer.”
“Yeah?” Shake replied. “You got root beer all over my ice cream.”
They both sat there for a moment until the same realization flashed in their faces. Each took a mouthful of their sullied products.
“Incredible,” Green said.
After a brief pause, the two men rose to their feet and started running for the patent office. Shake had a slight lead and made it to the steps of the patent office first. Green, closely behind, leaped out and tackled Shake and got on top of him. He began slamming Shake’s head on the concrete until Shake was a crumpled, bloodied and lifeless heap. Green got up and went inside and applied for the RBF patent. Shake was dead but Green was acquitted in the trial, with the Grand Jury saying that the RBF is so delicious and refreshing its invention transcends any life that may have been lost in the process of inventing it.
So now, nearly 150 years after its invention, I raise my mug of root beer and vanilla ice cream in tribute to my hero!