Butterscotch Syrup: Seals up Old Wounds

Butterscotch Syrup for French Toast

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 tbsp real vanilla

1/4 cup water

1/4 stick of butter

1/4 cup cream or half & half

I usually throw these all into a cold pan together, slowly bringing up the heat and whisking until it comes to a boil.

This morning I may have added the water and sugar first, then turned down the heat, and later added the butter then the cream.  I remember being worried that the cream would get weird, but it didn’t.  The amounts listed above are approximate.  I’m not great with measuring, though I’m trying to pay more attention in order to communicate my process. I was cooking bacon and french toast while the syrup was going, so I’m not sure exactly what came first.

The Power of Reconciliation

The cookbook editor Judith Jones, in a recent interview said “Writers who really write for home cooks are very often displaced people who are in search of their past; they want to recover it to celebrate it and share it with you and me.”  Indeed, every time I make homemade syrup I recall my home, my childhood, my past.  Locked away in my arctic prison, I keep the fine thread taught which knits me still to the tapestry of my family every time I recreate my mother’s recipes in my own way.

I only recently began making homemade syrup for pancakes and french toast.  Real maple syrup is lovely but pricey.  My mother made homemade syrup when I was a kid.  My most intense gustatory memories of her attempts are of a thinned molasses on top of banana crepes.  The flavor was pretty intense for an adolescent palette and I don’t recall being that crazy about it.  My other memory is of a rather watery brown sugar syrup.  There were complaints from her offspring… most of them coming from me rather than my two sisters, who were much younger and less inclined to see anything other than an exciting plate of pancakes and syrup.  For me, however, the syrup was symbolic of our status on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.   I don’t know whether my mom said out loud “we can’t afford the store bought stuff” but that was certainly the conclusion I drew.  This interpretation along with my disdain for generic brands and homemade anything led to a souring of my fondness for pancakes, especially lean ones cooked in a dry pan.

My mother’s homemade brown sugar syrup.

I wonder sometimes about the sea change in our collective perceptions of “store bought” versus “homemade”.  As an adolescent, many of my more economically stable friends had pantries stocked full of name brand goods–crinkly Little Debbie Snack Cakes, stout cans of Dole fruit, snappy Green Giant vegetables, lovely little magenta cartons of Juicy Juice–I saw their refrigerators and cabinets as colorful symbols of their families’ success.  When I opened the cupboards at home there was a paltry selection of black and white labeled foodstuffs and Kroger brand cans.  The aesthetic aridity of the labels seemed so indicative of our financial woes.  Nevermind that the vegetables in the crisper or the leftovers from the week before had begun to grow their grey-green mold…my single mother’s full time job and full-time college student status didn’t allow for frequent household upkeep.  The symbolism of our kitchen was interpreted by Yours Truly, the young critic, as signifying poverty.  When my mother would bring home bags of Chik-fil-A, I felt wealthy.  Dole brand ketchup, rather than the Kroger brand, was a kind of Dow Jones Childhood Average. Did everyone in the eighties interpret Store Bought this way?  I don’t know.

But so much has changed in the intervening years.  I’ve had my own children and with that I’ve come to understand my mother and our kitchen in a different way.  My interpretation of her as the Mother archetype and my “reading” of our foodways is much kinder.  And probably much more truthful.  She didn’t cook full meals more than once or twice a week I think, but when she did cook, meals were about the company you kept at the table.  Food was for sharing.  A perpetual Thanksgiving.  Their were often strangers at the table.  Artist friends of hers, writers, ministers, old friends, family from out of town.  I learned the fine art of conversation at my mother’s table, I honed my argumentative skills and was treated as a fellow intellectual even when I’m sure my additions to the topic at hand were ludicrous.  I saw the healthy consumption of wine in relatively moderate proportions, I learned how to set an eclectic table with all of the mismatched tableware we owned.  She taught me what kind of music goes well with dining, how to find flowers for cheap and generally how to make an art of eating.

Pancakes and homemade syrup must have been rare moments in a perpetual struggle to survive as a single mother with three daughters.  She completed her undergraduate and received her diploma the same year I graduated from high school. And really, if I really think about it, the flavors were great; it was my interpretation of the food as a symbol that was flawed.  What I’m thankful for now is not only the culinary education I received at her knee but also for the largely unprocessed diet I consumed.  Unprocessed and home cooked meals are now a different kind of economic indicator.  Eating fresh food can be expensive especially when time is the kind of commodity it is in my life as I’m sure it was in my mother’s.   All told, what was most complicated in my life as an adolescent is now the most simple.  In making my own breakfast syrup, a few old wounds are sealed up. Healed.

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