MAY IT PLEASE THE PALATE: Boston or Detroit Cooler?

A certain fast food restaurant recently ran a promotion to give away free Boston Coolers. My wife mentioned that would be taking advantage; I suggested that I would just take the cantaloupe. Wife looked at me like I was from outer space, or at least not from Detroit.

Which I'm not. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I had no inkling of what Vernors was, much less that it's the oldest surviving ginger ale sold in the United States. Vernors (they dropped the apostrophe-s in the 50s) wasn't distributed to Pennsylvania back then. Ginger ale was Canada Dry, and it was the thing to drink when all the cola, root beer, lemonade, and Kool-Aid were gone. In other words, I never warmed up to the taste. (Though I did enjoy another Detroit product, Faygo Redpop, which I bought regularly from the corner store near my high school, with sour cream and onion potato chips.)

As for a Boston Cooler? Sure, I'd heard of them. It was a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a halved cantaloupe. My Dad loved them; I found them refreshing as well. That's what we called a Boston Cooler in Pittsburgh (and I found a 2010 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article to back me up on that.)

After moving to Detroit, I was taught that warm Vernors was the thing to drink when you had a tummy ache, which we dutifully fed to our daughters growing up. I also learned that Vernors was used by some Detroiters in cooking; Aretha Franklin showed off her recipe for "Re Re's Christmas New Bethel Ham" a glaze made with from the soft drink, on a 2012 episode of "LIVE with Kelly and Michael." (Mix Vernors with brown sugar, yellow mustard, pineapple juice, and ... I'll stop there, before we get to the coconut and maraschino cherries.)

But that Detroiters called Vernors and vanilla ice cream - blended like a milk shake - a "Boston Cooler" was unknown to me. I stubbornly held on to that childhood memory of my Dad digging into his ice cream and cantaloupe Boston Cooler. So when Mickey D's ran its recent promotion, I did some research. And it turns out both versions of the Boston Cooler have some historical legitimacy.

As for the one I remember, the July 27, 1901 Boston Journal has an article on page 6 that states, "This is a Boston cooler: Take a prime ripe cantaloupe (unless it is dead ripe it will not do), fill the halves with ice cream, and you have a dish fit for the President."

The Detroit version lays claim to being invented in the 1880s, but according to etymologist Barry Popik, there is no citational evidence to support the name "Boston Cooler" for Vernors and ice cream until 1920. While the name supposedly comes from the fact that Detroit's "Boston Boulevard" is near the original Vernors plant, the truth is that street was not developed until 1905, according to both Popik and Wikipedia.

So maybe Vernors appropriated a name that was already in use. It doesn't matter much to its loyalists, who swear by this robust, highly carbonated product.

Don't tell them that Bon Appétit magazine ranked Faygo as the best tasting American root beer in 2009. Or you'll start a Detroit root beer civil war, on top of the Boston Cooler battle.


Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.

Published: Wed, Aug 03, 2016