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.

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

What Are You Reading

I love books, always have. I grew up in a family that made plenty of space for reading, in a home where the TV was not allowed on after the nightly news. Books were a prominent part of our physical landscape, from the shelf of books in our bedrooms to the bookcase in the living room that was filled with history books.

Fence Pliers in the Library, with....

Visits to the Lake Charles Carnegie Library a couple of times a week during the summer were supplemented by gifts from my grandmother, a librarian, of books deaccessioned from the Acadia Parish Library. And each birthday or Christmas included at least one book as a present. The question “What are you reading?” was raised in each phone call from a relative. Books were then, still are, central to how I understand and experience the world.

As a youth, they took me on adventures and exploration. I sailed on voyages aboard clipper ships, Viking ships, sailing warships. I explored the Rockies with the Mountain Men. I was kidnapped by pirates and later by Indians. I learned to raise a raccoon with Rascal and to navigate the Mississippi with Tom Sawyer. I became a 1930s vet in the Yorkshire Dales and rode with Paul Revere as he raised the alarm to the British invasion.

As an adult, books still provide a bookend to my farm life: a few chapters before sunrise and a bit more before sleep. Visiting others, I’ll gravitate to the bookshelf (or, special joy, bookcase), that semi-public form of autobiography, a map of character, if you will, where the knowledge that a friend has a collection of P.G. Wodehouse means he can be relied on in tough times.

Our culture has changed and people do read books less, sometimes not at all. But it is still a wonderful question to ask, one that teaches if we listen to the answer: What are you reading?

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Reading this weekend: G.K. Chesterton’s biography of William Cobbett

Eating Cake

Empire rots and grows dark at the edges even as the lights seem brightest in its heart where the leaders feverishly tweak and prime the flow of the wealth-pump and would-be leaders make promises to restore the Republic to its former glory. And both sets struggle mightily to keep the haves content and the have-nots hopeful.

We live an hour from Knoxville to our north-east and Chattanooga to our south-west in a narrow valley with low ridges. Our county just ten years ago had twelve repairmen servicing phone lines. Today it has one individual who now services two counties with the same amount of landline.

Phone companies have always been required, as a semi-public utility, to maintain that access in rural areas. But the cell phone revolution has allowed them a way out of that obligation. In a historical slight-of-hand, as the number of cell phones proliferated, phone companies began dismantling the service infrastructure. Today a disruption to the landline entails many calls and a week or more response time; a process that is guaranteed to gin up the numbers who get fed up and opt out. The more who opt out, the quainter the requirement to provide the costly landline infrastructure seems until eventually the service is removed and replaced with….?

Meanwhile, currently 7 out of 10 teachers in the US assign homework to students that require a broadband connection to complete the work (according to a recent FCC report). And one out of three households do not subscribe to broadband. The report is primarily urban-centric. Very little data about how rural-households cope. But one could reasonably surmise that for lack of digital infrastructure or for affordability, large sections of this land are left out of the techno-fantasies of our education elites.

Indeed one does not need to read that report. Read an article in a newspaper or watch a segment on a newscast and witness that disconnect between the fantasy imaginings of a connected world and the realities of everyday life. It has only been three years since we began to get a cell phone signal at our house. Before that date I’d have to drive ten miles and park at the Fender’s Methodist Church to take calls. The teenage boy in a neighboring family walked up to our back field (north-east corner) and found a forty-foot patch where he could reach his girlfriend.

Today we enjoy a ghost echo of the digital revolution here in the valley. We now receive cellphone calls in the front two rooms of the house. Outside we can take calls from the house to almost half-way down the drive. At that point you’d still need to drive out to the church to complete your call. And our connection speeds have increased. We get a pretty consistent 1G in those two front rooms with the occasional 3G pulse. And some of the time we get nothing.

I’m not whinging, I have a good job, a good farm and a full belly. But one does wonder who speaks for or is concerned about the rural lives of this country, the kids held back by both finances and access to the digital promised-land. A technological revolution that I suspect the elites are no longer capable of either funding or even conceptualizing a need for outside the core hubs where the lights still burn bright.

There you have it, as a society we are busy rolling up the carpets of communication infrastructure while requiring kids to use a technology which is only sporadically available or on terms they can’t afford. And failing that, they are effectively being asked to kindly turn out the lights when they leave.

Our rural population along with the abandoned urban core are being asked to “eat cake”. And we all know where that ends. And in case you are having trouble imagining, it doesn’t end with a “digital” revolution.