The Steen’s Syrup Republic

It pains me to speak of parental moral failings. Yet, an honest, clear-eyed assessment of the shortcomings of our role models is what makes us men and women, separates us from the mere beasts, even when the lessons on how to live are learned at the clay feet of those nearest and dearest. Indeed, out of rigorous self-examination does greatness rise.

Now, in order that others gain from such experience, let us draw back the curtain, stiffen our spines, and take instruction. My stepmother, limited by her birth in North Louisiana, had two principal failings, each of which was encouraged by not being instantly and roundly denounced by my father.

The first, she put a powdered creamer in her coffee. In those distant days, when the northern part of the state was still a foreign country, the natives of that blighted land were wont to using this unholy substance. And they did so without shame. When dining at the Pioneer Club, with all the family as witness, my stepmother would request it with her after-dinner coffee. A quick scurrying by waitstaff, huddled conversations, eventually a distraught chef issuing from the kitchen with apologies: “We are sorry, ma’am, but we do not have this ‘powdered creamer.’ Would you like some milk?” She soon took to carrying a jar of Coffeemate non-dairy coffee creamer, a scarlet sin hidden away in her purse, for emergencies, its mere presence an indication of membership in an outlier clan of which such an act would be construed as “normal.”

The second failing, and perhaps the more to be pitied, was her preference for Smucker’s fruit syrups over our native Steen’s cane syrup. No doubt, my siblings will be mortified at my airing of such dirty laundry, but, there it is, it cannot be unsaid. Sins of such magnitude (to be cataloged alongside the predisposition of norlanders to drown their breakfast with sweet tree sap) cannot be lightly dismissed with a “we must make allowances.” Lines must be drawn.

That my brothers and sisters have all managed, even with this egregious moral instruction, to still learn, one foot before the other, that a syrup created from the juices of sugar cane stalks cooked in an open kettle to burnt gold is the only correct choice to pour over pancakes must surely give hope to the citizens of our land. Children learn lessons from both good and bad example. They can and do transcend poor practices through acute observation, ultimately choosing the higher road and shunning the moral transgressions of those of weaker constitutions.

Fear of flavor is not a lost moral crusade; pilgrims still struggle on the rocky road. Although in these waning days of the Republic our options may be limited, the way obstructed, we still stand resolute with a courage that never wavers.

Steen’s syrup, now and forever.


Reading this weekend: Father and Son, by Larry Brown. S is for Southern, a guide to the South, from Absinthe to Zydeco.

8 thoughts on “The Steen’s Syrup Republic

  1. Cousin, I feel your consternation! Personally, I prefer the flavor of first run pure cane Steen’s over maple or even honey when it comes to adorning pancakes. Biscuits are even on a higher plane and are best adorned by fresh fig preserves.
    Momma preferred her coffee more as in the form of sugar than anything else.Poppa took it very black period.
    Rosie and I prefer our coffee with a glug or two of fat free half and half with stevia for sweetness.
    Poppa used to say he preferred maple syrup, mainly because he could never get over the thought of eating ground up ants which got mixed in with the squeezing from the sugar cane mill. He spent many hours hours as a child leading the mule around the circle powering the mashing mechanism and had an upclose vision of how the juice and the ants were bedfellows… I always figured they got filtered out at some point…

    • Well, I’ve always taken my coffee black and bitter. In fact, when I order at a restaurant, I say to the waiter, give it to me black and bitter, like life itself. I have yet, in all these years, to have someone crack a smile. Sigh.

      Ants, eh? Great memory from your Daddy.

  2. Funny perhaps that the proxy for failed parenting and inculcation of standards of quality is quite literally the development of good taste. Such appeals are lost on the typical American, I fear, whose tastes run toward hot dogs, macaroni & cheese, and beer, sometimes even fetishizing the craft versions of each. As I recall, the movie Babette’s Feast made much the same point in a European setting.

    • I’d fear to climb to the dizzying heights where a good hot dog, cold beer and mac n cheese wouldn’t be welcome. But, clearly, I think our tastes have become unmoored in this global economy. Heavy reliance on industrial production techniques is used to create Franken-foods. And, many no longer have any sense of what a local cuisine might taste like. I find that the term food-shed is helpful to me in my cooking.

  3. Will the Gentleman from Tennessee please rise to the debate?

    You, sir, have dropped a gauntlet of fine preparation, and I mean to return it only on the condition we seek out common ground – whether from geography or perhaps more appropriately from an enjoyment of coffee without additive.

    I surely noticed the fine establishment in your piece of the relative local geography of your nativity. That the northern half of Louisiana might be construed a foreign country to someone from south of Baton Rouge is elegantly delivered.

    That your father should tolerate such outrageous behavior by your step-mother seems to me testament to his devotion and, if I might be so bold, his insight into humanitarian patience in favor of a dear one. From your brief testimony they both appear to be good and reasonable folk. Local custom needs an affront now and again to keep it practiced in the art of tradition.

    But enough falderal… I really mean to inquire where, upon all the acres of your splendid Tennessee hill farm, where are you keeping your cane patch? The agronomist in me demands satisfaction upon this point. Sweet sorghum. I can imagine. will grow in your current environs. But sugar cane? Sir, are you silly?

    • Alas, I have been found out. But, I remain prepared, in the event of a global disruption of our supply chain, that prevents Steen’s from being shipped by UPS or wagon train, to embrace and grow sorghum. Indeed, I have a jar or two of that substance from over at Muddy Pond (and, we even have a jar of tree sap for the Norlander in residence). And, I find it a pleasing substitute in a pinch, if I squint my eyes and hold my mouth just right. But, you, Sir, will not find a product labeled Smucker’s fruit syrup in this house.

      Falderal, indeed!

Any thoughts or questions?