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Friday, August 2, 2013

Good for what ails you

Last week I shared with you my favourite ginger crinkle cookie recipe, a key ingredient being molasses. The word "molasses" comes to us from the Portuguese melaço
 which in turn comes from the Latin mellaceus (honey-like, from mel honey). The English borrowed the Portuguese word in the 16th century, the Portuguese having made it to the sugar-producing West Indies before the English got there. But the English borrowed the plural form melaços, since molasses is actually the "dregs" of raw sugar. In 1870, it was correct to say, "The Americans are all fond of molasses, using them regularly at breakfast and supper to their buckwheat cakes and waffles." But, although this plural usage has survived in some parts of the southern US, now "molasses" is treated as a singular. This evolution in usage is similar to what is happening with "data" and "media", yet no one castigates anyone for using "molasses" in the singular.

There are different grades of molasses, the darkest being called "blackstrap". It's not certain where the "strap" part of this term came from, though  it may reflect the Dutch word stroop which was a 17th-century variant of siroop (syrup).

In Britain, molasses is known as "treacle" (or "black treacle" to distinguish it from golden syrup, which is also called "treacle".) "Treacle" has an even more interesting history.  In ancient Greek, a therios was a wild beast or venomous reptile. As we saw with the story of basil, venomous reptiles and antidotes to their attacks ("theriacal antidotes") seem to have been a bit of an obsession with the Greeks. The ancient Romans shortened the "theriacal antidote" to a theriaca, soon further shortened to tiriaca.

By the time the apothecaries of the Middle Ages were peddling it, it was called "triacle" (pronounced tree ACK'll), and over the years salves and nostrums called this were claimed to cure everything from snake bite and poisoning to rheumatism, scurvy, plague, smallpox, cancer and venereal diseases! How this word migrated over to molasses in the 17th century is unknown, but I suspect some of these remedies were very syrupy in consistency. In North America, we rarely use the word "treacle", but the adjective "treacly" (excessively sweet figuratively speaking), though less common than in British English, is not unknown.

I love molasses, and I substitute it for sugar everywhere I can. Here's another recipe, which I find is a delicious improvement on ordinary pancakes. If you're used to eating plain white insipid pancakes, the chestnut brown colour may seem odd, but trust me, you'll love 'em. In Canada the kinds of molasses that are easily available in groceries are called "Fancy" and "Cooking". The "Cooking" molasses is a little less sweet (but not bitter like blackstrap molasses), has a stronger flavour, and about four times as much iron and five times as much calcium as the "Fancy" molasses, so I use it in preference.
Who knows, perhaps they'll cure your rheumatism!

Molasses-sweetened Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes

Stir together:
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ginger (optional)

In  measuring cup, combine:
1 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup plain yogourt)
2 tbsp. oil
2 tbsp. molasses
1 egg

Stir wet ingredients into dry and add 1/2 cup fresh blueberries.

Heat frying pan over medium heat until a drop of water skitters across the surface when shaken on the pan. Brush lightly with oil.
Measure  1/4 cup of batter per pancake onto pan and spread out a little. Cook until bubbles break on surface, then flip and cook about a minute longer.
Batter can be kept in the fridge for a few days so that you can whip up pancakes for breakfast with no mess.
For more recipes using molasses, visit

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.