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You're Already Sweet Enough

Savoring Kentucky usually rules rants out of order, cultivating at least a veneer of calm and contentment. After all, we live in paradise. Mix Kentucky growers with equal parts excellent climate, ample rainfall (usually), and potent soil and we get an array of foods that, not long ago, even royalty could not have enjoyed. So ranting usually seems ridiculous.

Tart cherries ripening.

But then there's sugar. Rant-worthy sugar.

The shortest route to my main point is through these assertions:

  • Few Kentuckians could afford sugar in large quantities until the 20th century. (Here's National Geographic's quick sugar history.)
  • Therefore, traditional, historic, or family recipes for sugar-soaked desserts must not reach all that far back into family or Kentucky history.
  • And what if they do? These are not the foods that will nourish strong families, healthy children, and resilient elders. No extra helping of nostalgia or love of those who have gone on ahead of us can cover up the fact that "foods" built on mountains of sugar need to be placed firmly in our past.

I'm looking at you, chess pie. Two cups of white sugar for one nine-inch pie??? May I just state, quite calmly, borrowing from the moderation and good cheer that make Kentucky a fine place to live: "That's absurd."

Pecan Pie? I'm coming after you next. One cup sugar plus one cup corn syrup for one measly nine-inch pie is hardly better. And pound cake, you poser, you shameless puller of heartstrings? Just because people say "Mama's" or "Aunt Betsy's" or "Generic Historic Restaurant's" pound cake recipe does not excuse three cups of sugar per cake.

Maybe......maybe if we ate one serving of one of those three things once a year. Maybe. But we don't. We expect them and indulge in them at family gatherings, restaurant meals, community suppers, special occasion dinners, annual banquets, fund-raising events, and more.

I'll cut Mamaw some slack here. She most likely had no idea Kentucky would end up sick and sore. I'm pretty sure she had only short-term experience with these super-sweet foods, so the long-term harm that comes from eating too much of them had not yet manifested. Kentucky grandparents and great-grandparents on farms most likely ate their own canned blackberries or applesauce for dessert, or finished off a meal with biscuit/sorghum/butter, about which more below.

Small sidebar: Certainly it's not only sweet desserts that wreak health havoc here in the Bluegrass State. But today I'm not ranting about an institutionalized, government-supported, corn-and-soy based, cheap-and-cynical food system and its manipulation of hungry people who have little money. This is a limited rant, about something we have the common sense to see through, fix, and leave behind: our head-in-the-sand notion that whatever our precious loved ones in the past wrote down in their own hands must be good, and must be eaten with near reverence, often, in their honor.

Had our grandmothers and great-aunts known about the miseries that plague so many diabetic Kentuckians today, they would have included warning labels on those recipe cards. In other words, I'll bet Mamaw—or at least Mamaw's Mamaw—would advise backing away from the sugar canister.

She might even mention fruit.

The beautiful annual procession of fabulous Kentucky fruits has begun: last weekend, strawberries appeared at Lexington Farmers Market. Here come blueberries, gooseberries, currants, sour cherries, mulberries, plums, elderberries, grapes, serviceberries, peaches, raspberries, cantaloupes and other melons, blackberries, watermelons, pawpaws, apples, pears, persimmons, and more, right through the growing season. While few of these fruits are truly native to Kentucky, they thrive here and have made their home among us. They are nature's own ethereal sweeteners.

Ripening blueberries.

Fresh fruits, sliced and drizzled with a little honey, sorghum, or maple syrup and sprinkled with a bit of vanilla or a tiny pinch of spice or seasoning—cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, black pepper, cloves, salt—yes. Add a teaspoon of liqueur or bourbon if you like. Some people like a drizzle of balsamic vinegar on fresh sliced fruit.  And many fruits need no enhancements. Perfectly ripe Honeydew melons come to mind.

Even in winter, many Kentucky fruits, frozen and then cooked with the same restrained sweetening and maybe a dollop of butter or cream—that's our natural richness. Those are the perfect endings to good Kentucky meals.  I included quite a few suggestions for fruit "closers" in Classic Kentucky Meals.

At many traditional Kentucky tables, most meals ended with those who still wanted a bite of something sweet reaching for the sorghum jar. A bit of sorghum syrup smushed into some butter and then eaten on a biscuit—self-managed dessert, only for those who wanted it.

In her new, sweet Sorghum's Savor (see Eat Kentucky's review here), Kentucky-born food authority Ronni Lundy says this locally famous mixture of sorghum and butter is called "Gravy Horse." I didn't know that term. I had called it simply "The Magical Mixture" when I wrote Sweet, Sweet Sorghum.

Whatever we call it, that right-sized, satisfying, anti-oxidant rich, sorghum-sweetened ending to Kentucky meals deserves to live on into our future. Those other "traditional" super-sweet desserts? Even though I have my own treasured collection of loved ones' dessert recipes preserved on spattered note cards and the backs of old envelopes—no, not those desserts. Not on a regular basis. 

In spite of the fact that holding some of those recipes in my hand can make me cry with loss and longing—for a missing person or people, not for the food itself—I see that cooking that recipe will not bring the lost beloved ones back, will not fill again the gate-leg fold-up table on the screened-in porch with beloved aunts, uncles, cousins, Mother and Dad, sister and brothers, nieces and nephews, teasing each other and telling stories on a soft Kentucky summer night. 

How do we change? Maybe we make beautiful frames for those recipes and hang them in places of pride in our homes. Maybe we cook the recipes once each year. In order to have a future, we'll find ways to place firmly in our past that archaic time when we allowed ourselves, briefly, to subscribe to the delusion that we honor our ancestors by over-eating foods that will kill us.

Weep no more—we can eat so much better. We can enjoy our eating so much more. We can take much more nourishment from Kentucky's abundance. We can reach farther back into our families' and our state's deep past to connect to flavors and foods our land and our very bodies can embrace. And maybe then we can live to tell our own descendants about our family's favorite fresh strawberry delight.

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