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.

To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day

Christmas is always a time for reflection and a chance to indulge in a bit of melancholy.

But on a farm, chores still get done. So a couple of hours ago I got started while it was still dark.

This morning’s chores began with a cup of coffee, a list, a Christmas plate of blueberry pancakes with Steen’s syrup, and then I was out the door. Some goodies from the kitchen slop pail for the pigs in one hand and five gallons of old walnuts in the other. I headed first to the paddock in the woods to feed the new pigs.

Nineteen degrees this morning and they are burrowed deep in an old round bale of hay. A call or two and they stick their heads out. I bang the pail and they scurry to the trough, only about forty pounds each, yet they still put away an impressive amount of food. Emptying the food and walnuts into the trough, I break the water on their water tank, head out of the paddock and over to the barn.

All creatures are up this morning. The chickens thud off of their roost and into the run. The ducks are quacking incessantly and the garden hog is barking and running up and down his fence line. Above it all is the bleating of a barn load of sheep desperate to remind me they are hungry. Gradually, as I feed, the cacophony fades to just the sheep. And they grow quiet as I give them some grain and fresh hay.

At the front of the barn, I pause to look out at the scene. Smoke drifts up in the early dawn from a half dozen homes in the valley. The lights come on in the kitchen of Adrienne’s home down the hill. Where I shared a mug of gluhwein and dinner with her and her family on last night’s Christmas Eve.

The cistern is frozen over to a depth of a few inches. Using a hand sledge I bust up the ice and fill the various watering pails, sloshing the icy water on my pants. As I distribute where needed around the barnyard, I’m in a contemplative mood. Aware that my family is gathered together in my hometown and my partner is with her family in Florida.

Choices we make define our lives and often take years to become evident. This fact and this day remind me of bits of a favorite Christmas poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.

His Christmas at Sea, a poem of a man seeing but unable to reach the parents he left behind.

…. Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea; And O the wicked fool I seemed in every kind of way, to be here hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.

…. And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me, as they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea; but all I could think of, in the darkness and the cold, was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Haul your ropes and have a merry Christmas,