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.

The Criminal Palate: A Halloween Tale

Treat ’em with respect

We speak today of food felons, for they walk anonymously among us. Their despicable, unimaginable, reprehensible crime against society: a lifelong disrespect and disregard for producing and indulging in good food.

Like the dying punk in “Repo Man,” I blame society. These villains are, by and large, the product of either overly indulgent parents or unimaginative cooks, the offspring of a wealthy society. Let us consider each in his own sordid light, described, so as to give you a thrill, as if they might even be you.

  1. The Picky Eater. Perhaps as a parent you are an offender in this first category. You’ve allowed your offspring a childhood of lingering over the fat, tasteless burger and sugary drink at home and at the restaurant. The hissy fits and the social embarrassment are just not worth the effort of saying no. On family visits, you turn to your sibling and shrug: “He will only eat a hamburger, do you mind?” Then, as years go by, the picky ways that began as simply a pacifier become a way of life. Eventually, the errant child enters adulthood. He moves into your basement, bringing with him the smell of stale beef tallow and rancid fat that forever permeate your home and dreams. You took the easy way out and created a picky eater: a societal monster, a criminal now walking the streets recruiting fellow members of the undead palate.
  1. The Because Mom Cooked It This Way Eater. Are you the sociopath who murders your veggies? Do you cook your cabbage into a translucent goo, having engaged in this heinous practice for so long you are insensitive to the pain and the carnage left behind? Sadist that you are, you force the kids to sit down and eat it. “Why should it go to waste?” you say. You had to eat it and like it as a child, so, by God, they have to eat it as well. Veggies aren’t supposed to taste good; that’s why they’re good for you! Once, many years ago, the thought occurred to you to vary the method of preparation — maybe a quick sauté with green onion and ginger or braised with a hearty beef roast — but, nah, you couldn’t be bothered. You just chop-chop-chop, drop it in water, and boil until it is dead-dead-dead. Your poor blighted offspring are destined to grow up to create new translucent generations of the criminally and puritanically unimaginative cook.
  1. The If It’s Thursday, It’s Indian Eater. The worst culinary offender by far is the peripatetic cook, unique to a society of such vast wealth and narcissism that her palate is completely unmoored. She’s the person whose own cultural rootlets have withered and died from lack of nourishment during a sad lifetime of wandering the aisles of global indulgence. This criminal’s family endures the Thai phase, the Ethiopian year, the Latin dinners. A sad nomad of the exotic city and suburban steppes, she eventually inflicts a Thanksgiving dinner of such amazingly disparate tastes that the Jamaican jerked turkey is actually embraced.

Now, I’m sure, gentle reader that none of these horrific crimes apply to you. No, not you. Never would you drown and brutalize a veggie, indulge the tyrannical tantrum of the three-year-old, inflict in a Saveur-induced rage a lifetime of rootless eating. Not even guilty a little, right?  Yep, me neither.

Our Edible Landscape

Elderflowers, soon to be elderberries, soon to be elderberry wine.

It must have been close to a hundred degrees in the hoop-house. After weeding down one row of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and melons, I paused to put my glasses, made useless by the sweat streaming down my face, in my overall pocket before continuing. The next row, a first planting back in April, was now laden with tomatoes of all stripes and types. I snacked on the ripe cherry tomatoes as I pruned and tied up the heavy branches.

Finishing the last row, I harvested a handful of bell and jalapeno peppers before heading to the house. In the breezeway of the barn, substantial piles of red onions and garlic lay curing. Security against winter want, they provided visions of future stews and gumbos. After a quick stop in the herb garden for a fistful of cilantro, I dropped off the produce with Cindy, who was busy making salsa, and returned to my next morning task.

I am an avid procrastinator when it comes to weeding and mulching perennials. There always seems to be something more important to do, whether it’s trimming sheep’s hooves or sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee. But yesterday the looming chore rose to the top of the list. I weeded and mulched the grapes, blackberries, pawpaw orchard, and blueberry bushes. As I worked I snacked, first on the blueberries and then on the blackberries, in a comfortable rhythm. Eat berries. Pull grass. Repeat.

There is a satisfaction in being able to walk the farm and snack or harvest in any season. Whether it is greens in deep January or wild chanterelles in late July, the real “movable feast” is there for the taking (with a little bit of sweat and labor). Even the sassafras trees make a contribution; I gather and grind their leaves to a fine powder in my annual production of gumbo filé.

Yesterday’s munching was just an appetizer for the summer months to come. Soon there will be ripe beefsteak tomatoes, juicy sweet melons, platters of figs, and salads of peppers, cucumbers, homemade yogurt, and dill — each month’s cooking informed by the season, each month with its own theme.

July already has me salivating in anticipation. I’m thinking grilled ribeye with a little salt and pepper, garlicky mashed potatoes, a salad of sliced tomatoes topped with fresh basil, homemade bread, and a few glasses of wine for a theme.

This work of farming sure goes down easier if you enjoy the pleasures and conviviality of the table, or just the taste of a warm, fat blackberry on a humid afternoon, plucked from the vine a moment before you pop it in your mouth.

 Yep, it is going to be a great summer.

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Reading light this weekend: John Grisham’s latest, Camino Island. And, Martin Walker’s latest “Bruno” novel, The Templars’ Last Secret.

The Local Table

We are spending part of tomorrow helping a friend complete some fencing. So, in keeping with last week’s local theme, as well as not having written a new post… here is one from the archives.

We cook with lard

We were sitting around last night during the lightning storm. Our neighbor Tim was playing the banjo while we talked. We were eating bowls of chili verde and gently arguing the merits of what a local food culture means. There were six of us for our monthly discussion, as much a convivial outing as it was a chance to exercise the gray matter.

In an era of global food distribution what is a local cuisine? I remember the awkward first outing by the Knoxville Slow Food chapter when they hosted a kimchi workshop. One can certainly use local ingredients to make kimchi, and we do. But hosting that workshop highlighted the difficulty of defining a local cuisine in this global economy and era of global migration.

When the current epoch declines, as it surely will, and we are left to pick up the pieces, what will our local table look like? All the various peoples will certainly add a mixture to that table. But the table will be influenced by what is producible in the local food shed. Your post-global cooking culture will probably still have access to imported foods. But, if coming from any distance then they will be expensive and used more for special celebratory events.

Waverly Root, in his excellent The Food of France, organizes the culinary regions based on the fat used in cooking. Which I always thought was a marvelous way to view local cooking: butter, lard, goose fat or oil. It made sense to me. All of our cooking begins with the base fat used to add flavor. The fat used in non-global cuisines is a product of your land base. A nice Mediterranean climate and you will use olive oil in your cooking. A more mountainous land or one composed of poorer soils and you are more likely to use lard or goose fat, a land composed of rich pasture land and the cooking will be based on butter. The fat used in cooking seems as convenient a way as any to explore the local table.

But for many regions of this country what could be or what was a local table is now buried beneath so many Costco’s, Trader Jo’s and Walmart’s at the intersection of an interstate commerce. That table, if glimpsed, has a museum like quality.  Like a carefully curated exhibit of old cookbooks to remind us what our table may look like again in the future.

I’m fortunate to have come from a cuisine in south Louisiana that is still vibrant and has survived the global march, largely intact. But after thirty years in Tennessee I only catch rare sightings of what an indigenous cooking culture here would look like. But that table, when it does emerge, will consist of what we raise in this, our particular food-shed. My guess is that lard and butter will once again reign supreme and define the table. And olive oil will be a mere Mary Celeste of the imagination, ghosting along the coast in search of a port.

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Reading this weekend: the Oedipus plays.