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The Shipwreck Rose: Molasses in Winter

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 17:28

Have you been to Fairview Farm at Mecox? It’s on Horsemill Lane, behind the Mecox Dairy property, and if you — like me — have kids but would rather stick a rusty fork in your eye than brave the Disney-level parking lot situation at Hank’s Pumpkintown, you should turn off the highway and find it. In addition to a farm stand, there’s a corn-cannon target-shooting range, potato chips fried before your eyes from fresh potatoes, and a shop selling rotisserie duck, the best pumpkin pie I’ve had in a long time, dahlia bouquets, and bags of “gingerbread cookies” that were excellent and, to me, instantly recognizable as the soft molasses cookies of old Bonac. I ate six while sitting on a hay bale for an hour waiting for a gaggle of rain-soaked but giddy adolescent girls to emerge from the corn maze.

People say that sugar is bad for you, and that it even feeds cancer, and when they say that I say: “Molasses.” Molasses is pure sugar but I am sure it can’t be bad for you. You can taste its wholesomeness. Molasses tastes like it has a lot of iron in it, fortifying minerals. Does molasses have iron in it? I don’t know, but it’s obviously nutritious. It will make skinny children strong. It will give anemic women energy. Like Guinness, it is good food.

Back when I was a fancy-free and childless young Manhattan magazine editor, I spent a week on the nutmeg-scented island of Grenada, and dragged my bored friends — who would rather have been at the beach drinking rum cocktails in bikinis — to an 18th-century sugar plantation, where we stood in the sun and watched the progress of the cane as it was piled onto a shoot that fed it into a massive, revolving clockwork piece that pressed the cane juice out into a hopper, where it was boiled. The whole air was molasses. The sugar crystals came off the top and the blackstrap, I gather, was destined for a rum factory.

We are entering molasses season, which begins on Nov. 1 (according to me).

Not many people remember that molasses cookies were once upon a time an everyday, essential staple in the kitchens of East Hampton. I don’t remember this, either; but my late aunt told me so, and I’ve read all about it in the old Ladies Village Improvement Society cookbooks. I’ve never discovered exactly the right recipe for molasses cookies, although once when I was a teenager and experimenting, I did accidentally bake the absolutely perfect version, dark and spicy and almost brownie-moist, but I neglected to write down how I’d done it, and the magic formula was lost.

The only acceptable molasses cookie is a soft drop cookie, with that ferrous flavor, a bit of ginger, a bit of nutmeg, and a spoonful of  vinegar.

The sugar plantations of the Caribbean are why molasses and also rum were once everyday essential staples on kitchen tables from Grenada and Barbados up along the Atlantic Seaboard of New England, all the way to Nova Scotia and Labrador. (With the salt cod traveling the other way, from the Maritimes back down to the Caribbean. Food for sailors and enslaved people on sugar and spice plantations.)

My kids and I lived in southwest Nova Scotia for several years, lobster country, and the locals did still drink rum as frequently as Americans drink beer. When I was in the fire department up there, my fellow firefighters could be grouped together into opposing camps of white rum drinkers versus dark rum drinkers. Which sort you preferred with your milk-boiled salt fish was an important distinction, and loyalties seemed ancestral. It was like rooting for the Yankees versus the Mets, or believing in the superiority of a Chevy or a Ford: The men, when drinking, would bicker about it. I’m emphatically in the dark-rum camp.

And so, as we enter molasses season and I start thinking about baking, my mind also turns to Christmas cake. “Christmas cake,” in case you aren’t familiar, is a less frightening way of referring to the fruitcakes the British eat while wearing paper crowns in December. This fruit cake is traditionally covered with marzipan and royal icing; or rolled marzipan alone, stuck to the cake with a layer of jam or marmalade, or marzipan and fondant. As I write this, I’m reminded that I need to add a few jars of dark molasses and dried fruit to the store of emergency pantry items I have hidden under my bed skirt, in case things take a turn this winter for the really worse. If we get trapped at home by lockdown, if there is a hurricane and the lights go out for a week and we have to gather around the fireplace for heat, if there is, as the Farmer’s Almanac warns, a series of blizzards, if the Arctic ice sheet persists in refusing to freeze and the sea rises up over the dunes, well, here in this house we will be eating dark-molasses fruit cake. It’s good for you.

My friend Maria Matthiessen of Sag Harbor bakes her Christmas cake in late October, puts it in a tightly sealed tin, and feeds it with brandy. She follows the recipe of her Scottish stepmother. I don’t take things quite that far. Mid or even late November will do for my Christmas cake, and I use a recipe from the BBC, modified because I don’t like candied peel, but instead cram in pounds of dried cherries and currants, and dark rum.

We will be fine.

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