I heard on the news this morning that new legislation has been introduced by several New England senators making it a felony to sell fraudulent maple syrup made from, as the reporter put it, “common cane syrup.”
Here’s what I have to say about that – Fine by me!
I think should be a crime to taint perfectly good cane syrup with any sort of flavoring, including and especially maple! In fact, I think it should be a crime to disguise the nectar of this divine grass as anything other than what it is: a nearly-perfect gift, multi-purpose gift from the gods. Common? Hardly.
Sugar cane and I go way back. Baw* planted a big field of sugar cane every year. He and I would go down to the garden to check its progress and he would always cut me a piece of the stalk with his pocket knife and peel back the greenish purple peel so that I could chew all the sweet juice out of the fibrous interior. I would gnaw on it until it was practically dessicated for fear of missing even one drop of sugary goodness.
Little did I know at the time that this reedy confection from which I derived an uncommon amount of enjoyment could be used as fuel, both for people and machines. In India and Central and South America, various derivatives of sugar cane are food staples. Staples. Not condiments. Staples. Rum, a human fuel on a whole other level, is made by fermenting and distilling molasses. More intriguing to me, however, is the fact that Brazil and the United States lead the world in the industrial production of ethanol. The United States makes it from corn; Brazil makes it from…you guessed it…sugar cane! Yes, sirree. The Brazilians are driving around in cars powered essentially by the same juice that fueled a rambunctious, tow-headed little girl on a farm in South Alabama.
Now the juice of raw sugar cane has a particular, peculiar flavor that is incomparably good, but cook its juices down until they are exquisitely coffee-colored, vaguely burnt tasting, and viscous and, well, that’s damn near perfection.
In November, before the first frost, the sugar cane would be cut. Baw had it hauled over the state line into Mississippi to Mr. Brannon, who had the all of the syrup making equipment and the know-how. On the appointed day, early in the morning, we would ride over there to watch the magic happen. To begin with, the men would feed the cane through a big mill to extract the juice which would then be strained to make sure there were no errant leaves, twigs or yellow-jackets to sully up the final product.
If I was good and didn’t get in the way, I would get a cup of pure, unadulterated cane juice to sip on. I could be really good when I wanted to. And boy, if there was a cup of cane juice at stake, I wanted to.
Mr. Brannon had a long vat with divided compartments that sat over a hot fire of lightered wood. As the juice fed through the different chambers it would slowly cook while Mr. Brannon walked up and down the length of the vat, skimming, testing, watching until the transformation from liquid to syrup was complete. Waiting for it to get right.
Many hours later, when Mr. Brannon gave the signal, the men would leap into action putting the hot syrup into cans, and Baw and I, smelling like wood smoke and candy, would head home with our share.
Now I have had a lot of fancy desserts in my time, but not one of them holds a candle to my all-time favorite. Take careful note of this complicated recipe and maybe you can recreate it. Take a pat of soft butter and put it in the middle of a plate. Pour a few tablespoons of cane syrup on top of the butter in the middle of the plate. Mash it all up together with a fork. Get you a hot biscuit (homemade, not canned), cut it in two, and slather the butter/syrup concoction on the halves.
Then lap the whole gooey mess up with a reckless disregard for the sticky, buttery bits that drip back down onto the plate. After all, those can be sopped up with another biscuit. Afterward, be sure to lick the last tenacious crumbs from your fingers and marvel in how good and satisfying the whole experience was. Uncommonly good.
Just try to get that from a tree.
*For those of you just now coming into the story, “Baw” is what I called my maternal grandfather for some reason long forgotten.