A Treacly Thanksgiving Message

Tate & Lyle tins/cans from my pantry

My family doesn’t usually observe American Thanksgiving now that we’re living in England; when nobody else is celebrating and it isn’t a public holiday, it loses most of its appeal. It’s not that I’m not thankful, that’s for sure, and it’s not that I don’t cook anything. In fact I spent the evening making spice cookies (UK: biscuits) to take to my doctor’s office (UK: doctor’s surgery) tomorrow for him and all the staff. The British National Health Service gives me excellent care—and without doubt the best access to medical care I’ve ever had—and I am truly grateful for it.

I couldn’t find my pumpkin- and turkey-shaped cookie cutters, though, so the clinic staff will have to make do with autumn leaf shapes and plain old circles. And the recipe calls for molasses, which we don’t have here, so I made the cookies with treacle.

When I first encountered Alice in Wonderland and read the story told by the dormouse about a treacle well, I was too little to know it was meant to be nonsense, and since I had no idea what treacle was, I happily took Lewis Carroll’s word for it that treacle was something that came out of a well. Harry Potter’s favorite dessert, treacle tart, isn’t quite that misleading, but it has none of what people usually call treacle in it, either. It’s one of my favorite British concoctions, and like so much good cooking it was born of necessity—you use up bread crumbs to make the filling—but it’s sweetened with golden syrup.

I’ve included photos of the tins (US: cans) of Lyle’s brand treacle and golden syrup from my pantry so you can see the remarkable labels used by the manufacturer, Tate & Lyle. It’s not often you come across food labeled with pictures of the carcass of a dead lion. The connection is the story of Samson, which is also the source of the quotation on the cans: “out of the strong came forth sweetness”. 

Samson seems to have been quite a capable lad, as the tale involves him killing a lion with his bare hands; finding later that bees had made a hive in the body of the lion, from which he harvested honey for his family; and later still being quick-witted enough to turn this into a riddle for what seems to have been some kind of after-dinner entertainment, karaoke not having been invented yet. But the dinner guests cheated at the riddle game so Sampson had to kill thirty of them, which is just the kind of story that makes reading the Old Testament so much fun, yet is precisely the part they leave out when they tell you about it in Sunday school.

The difference between black treacle and golden syrup.

From what I’ve read, treacle and molasses are both byproducts of refining sugar from sugar cane, as is golden syrup. Golden syrup is a type of treacle and molasses isn’t, though I have no idea why, and nobody calls golden syrup by the name treacle because… er, because treacle is something else entirely. Just look at the photos posted with this article and you’ll see the difference. And I have no idea why it’s easier to get molasses in the USA and to get treacle here. Presumably wherever you live, stores offer what the population prefers.

(My father, who was from Mississippi, preferred sorghum, which comes from a different plant entirely. If offered molasses he would launch into the old—if you’re from the American south—joke about how you cain’t have mo’  ’lasses if you ain’t had no  ’lasses yet.)

If the British prefer treacle then I would assume that treacle is sweeter than molasses, because most British food is sweeter than I like it. The national sweet tooth here seems to prefer things amazingly sweet, which I’ve always thought it might just be a holdover from the second world war. They had sugar rationing until 1953, and seem to still be making up for lost time.

But apparently treacle isn’t as sweet as molasses after all, because my spice cookies came out under-sweet. I’m going to give them to the clinic staff anyway.  I can pretend they’re meant to be like that, maybe call them low-sugar biscuits, bill them as a healthier option. The staff will still know I’m thankful to them for being there.

 *   *   *

And, readers, I’m thankful for you. 

In fact, I’ve been delighted to see how many readers seemed to be coming to read my posts these days—my hit count was looking pretty good.  That is, I was delighted, until I found that a good number of these readers were clicking through to this site from an Asian porn site.  Yes, my post from last Christmas on the English tradition of Christmas cake appeared, along with several links to other peoples’ Christmas-food blog posts, on what seems to be an Indonesian pornography site.

 So I am taking the advice of reader Rod Cuff from the north of England, who said that perhaps I could ask the people who enjoy my blog to post links to my site on their sites.  I would be most grateful if people would be willing to link to me, or even for people just to talk this blog up to their friends.  Somehow, I’d rather get new readers by asking you to join me in a marketing effort, than by getting myself listed on more porn pages.



Filed under Food

9 responses to “A Treacly Thanksgiving Message

  1. Patty Walmann

    Great entry as usual. I’m not sure we can even buy treacle here, but I was always curious about what one did with it. I wish you’d comment on all the Kate and William hoopla in England. Your entries are always so well researched but I’d appreciate an off the cuff, just current observation on the event from your perspective as an expat. (Is everyone really talking about it?) The Today Show, once a place to get a handle on the news early in the morning, now leads with the Royal Engagement on almost a daily basis. It’s even on the Evening News. I think the Royals are great fun but am not sure all Americans are so enthralled. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. We all do have so much to be thankful for and it’s good to be reminded of that once a year.

  2. Diane McAlpin

    You can buy treacle in the States at World Market- they also carry oatcakes, shortbread and these ginger-stem cookies (Fischers?)- mmmm. I’ve recently become fond of ‘digestive bisquits’ even though they don’t sound like they’d be that tasty.

  3. Great article Mary Ellen! Brings back long forgotten memories. I remember treacle from my childhood, but seem to remember using it in much the same way as golden syrup – as a spread on bread on top of a layer of butter. I am going to have to go out and look for it now to see if the taste is as I remember.

    The tins look exactly like those from my childhood, though I am guessing they have probably redesigned them along the way.

  4. P.S. Maple syrup was my absolute favourite though.

  5. Candida

    You know, I never thought there was anything odd about that lion carcass until you mentioned it. But I’m astounded that you find British sweet stuff sweeter than American sweet stuff, because visiting America we find the exact reverse! I’ve watched my kids pull faces through can after can of iced tea before they concluded they would never find anything that actually tasted of tea, and everything from cereals to ketchup was really sugary.

    Actually, they weren’t sugary, as we found when reading labels, but laced with “high-fructose corn syrup”, a substance until then unknown to our tastebuds. My sister said after moving to America that national supermarket shelves really tell you which farmers are the most politically powerful in demanding subsidies, because in Europe there were more kinds of yogurt and dairy products than you could ever want, while in America there was high-fructose corn syrup in everything. Maybe whichever you’re not used to tastes sweeter?

    (And I don’t know if it’s different for Mary-Ellen in the Home Counties, but round here the response to the royal wedding has been pretty much “oh, that’s nice, tempting fate a bit reusing that ring isn’t it, now what were we talking about?”)

  6. Thanks for the comments! Going in order–

    Patty, nobody has talked much at all about Prince William’s engagement. I’ve heard it mentioned twice, both by people commenting on the state of the economy and listing a royal wedding as something that will cheer up the populace, something for people to look forward to along with the 2012 Olympics to be held in London. There will be a nationwide holiday for the wedding, too.

    Diane, I love digestive biscuits! Plain or with dark chocolate, not milk chocolate, though.

    Cherry…you *had* to mention maple syrup…mmmm…

    Candida, I do find things here too sweet. And all kinds of savoury stuff turns out to be sweetened. Of course, none of these come to mind at the moment; I’ll set the bit and try to remember to say something next time I run across it. I have had one hospital meal in the UK, and it was enough to put you in the hospital: chicken in a sweet, sweet sauce, puffy white rice with zero nutritional value, tinned sweetcorn, and tinned peaches in heavy syrup. This is what they feed sick people?

    As for high-fructose corn syrup, your sister’s remark is very interesting! Also, I’ve read a couple of articles saying that it’s been shown that we metabolize high-fructose corn syrup differently than we do sugar, but they didn’t give enough of the science for me to know whether I believe that. In any case, it’s being claimed that you put on more weight consuming high-fructose corn syrup than you do from the equivalent (in calories) of cane sugar.

    I know that lots of people pooh-pooh anything to do with weight gain that goes beyond calories in-calories out, but metablism is actually not well-understood at all. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it turns out that that the best feed for fattening cattle is responsible for the difference in obesity rates that makes fat Americans the butt of half the jokes in the UK…

    • Candida

      Surely not half the jokes! That honour is reserved for the French (was anyone in the LEAST surprised that Prince Andrew reached for them as the butt of a corruption joke? I mean, really, that was worth a leak?) and Americans have to take a place in the queue for the half that’s left after that.

      I did read of one study of gout, which is not a port-drinker’s problem after all, which said the strongest dietary link they found was fizzy drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. It didn’t demonstrate cause-and-effect mechanism, just correlation. I guess cattle wouldn’t live long enough for gout – but actually, the things they do to the syrup to make it high-fructose are pretty weird. Calories-in-calories out may be a good rule of thumb for most things, most people, and most of the time, but when you start getting into strange not-in-nature foods like treated sugars and trans fats, it does all become a bit more through-the-looking-glass.

      Hospital food is … just odd. There’s no excusing it really. I guess they try to get maximum calories into people who may have little appetite, but you’d have thought providing foods less likely to make people push them away untouched would work better.

  7. Mary Korndorffer

    Black treacle for gingerbread; Golden syrup for flapjack and “My Mum’s wartime biscuits”; also poured over baked apples stuffed with sultanas.
    Good snowy weather food! Mary K

  8. Another thing that observant readers will notice about the difference between the black treacle and the golden syrup cans is that the golden syrup can is almost empty, while the treacle can is almost full. There is a reason for this.

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