By William Lyon Phelps
Before both the word molasses and the thing it signifies disappear forever from the earth, I wish to recall its flavour and its importance to the men and women of my generation. By any other name it would taste as sweet; it is by no means yet extinct; but for many years maple syrup and other commodities have taken its place on the breakfast table. Yet I was brought up on molasses. Do you remember, in that marvellous book, Helen's Babies, when Toddie was asked what he had in his pantspocket, his devastating reply to that tragic question? He calmly answered, "Bread and molasses."
Well, I was brought up on bread and molasses. Very often that was all we had for supper. I well remember, in the sticky days of childhood, being invited out to supper by my neighbour Arthur Greene. My table manners were primitive and my shyness in formal company overwhelming.
When I was ushered into the Greene dining room not only as the guest of honour but as the only guest, I felt like Fra Lippo Lippi in the most august presence in the universe, only I lacked his impudence to help me out.
The conditions of life in those days may be estimated from the fact that the entire formal
supper, even with "company," consisted wholly and only of bread, butter and molasses. Around the festive board sat Mr. Greene, a terrifying adult who looked as if he had never been young; Mrs. Greene, tight-lipped and serious; Arthur Greene, his sister Alice, and his younger brother, Freddy. As I was company I was helped first and given a fairly liberal supply of bread, which I unthinkingly (as though I were used to such luxuries) spread with butter and then covered with a thick layer of molasses. Ah, I was about to learn something.
Mr. Greene turned to his eldest son, and enquired grimly, "Arthur, which will you have,
bread and butter or bread and molasses?"
The wretched Arthur, looking at my plate, and believing that his father, in deference to the "company," would not quite dare to enforce what was evidently the regular evening choice, said, with what I recognised as a pitiful attempt at careless assurance, "I'll take both."
"No, you don't!" countered his father, with a tone as final as that of a judge in court. His
father was not to be bluffed by the presence of company; he evidently regarded discipline as more important than manners. The result was I felt like a voluptuary, being the only person at the table who had the luxury of both butter and molasses. They stuck in my throat; I feel them choking me still, after an interval of more than fifty years.
The jug of molasses was on our table at home at every breakfast and at every supper. The
only variety lay in the fact (do you remember?) that there were two distinct kinds of molasses-sometimes we had one, sometimes the other.
There was Porto Rico molasses and there was New Orleans molasses-brunette and blonde.
The Porto Rico molasses was so dark it was almost black, and New Orleans molasses was
The worst meal of the three was invariably supper, and I imagine this was fairly common
among our neighbours. Breakfast was a hearty repast, starting usually with oatmeal, immediately followed by beefsteak and potatoes or mutton chops, sometimes ham and eggs; but usually beef or chops. It had a glorious coda with griddle cakes or waffles; and thus stuffed, we rose from the table like condors from their prey, and began the day's work. Dinner at one was a hearty meal, with soup, roast, vegetables and pie.
Supper consisted of "remainders." There was no relish in it, and I remember that very
often my mother, who never complained vocally, looking at the unattractive spread with lack-lustre eye, would either speak to our one servant or would disappear for a moment and return with a cold potato, which it was clear she distinctly preferred to the sickening sweetish "preserves" and cookies or to the bread and molasses which I myself ate copiously.
However remiss and indifferent and selfish I may have been in my conduct toward my mother-and what man does not suffer as he thinks of this particular feature of the irrecoverable past?
-it does me good to remember that, after I came to man's estate, I gave my mother what it is clear she always and in vain longed for in earlier years, a good substantial dinner at night.
At breakfast we never put cream and sugar on our porridge; we always put molasses. Then, if griddle cakes followed the meat, we once more had recourse to molasses. And as bread and molasses was the backbone of the evening meal, you will see what I mean when I say I swam to manhood through this viscous sea. In those days youth was sweet.
The transfer of emphasis from breakfast to supper is the chief distinguishing change in the procession of meals as it was and as it became.
It now seems incredible that I once ate large slabs of steak or big chops at breakfast, but I
certainly did. And supper, which approached the vanishing point, turned into dinner in later years.
Many, many years ago we banished the molasses jug and even the lighter and more patrician maple syrup ceased to flow at the breakfast table. I am quite aware that innumerable persons still eat griddle cakes or waffles and syrup at the first meal of the day. It is supposed that the poet-artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti ruined his health by eating huge portions of ham and eggs, followed by griddle cakes and molasses, for breakfast. To me there has always been something incongruous between syrup and coffee; they are mutually destructive; one spoils the taste of the other.
Yet waffles and syrup are a delectable dish; and I am quite certain that nectar and ambrosia made no better meal. What to do, then? The answer is simple. Eat no griddle cakes, no waffles and no syrup at breakfast; but use these commodities for dessert at lunch. Then comes the full flavour.
Many taverns now have hit upon the excellent idea of serving only two dishes for lunch or dinner-chicken and waffles. This obviates the expense of waste, the worry of choice, the time lost in plans. And what combination could possibly be better?
One of the happiest recollections of my childhood is the marvelous hot, crisp waffle lying on my plate, and my increasing delight as I watched the molasses filling each square cavity in turn.
As the English poet remarked, "I hate people who are not serious about their meals."