A North Florida Cane Grinding
In bygone days rural communities often organized working parties - turning labor into social events. Hog killing, Corn shucking and Cane grinding were examples of this. Music and a meal were standard parts of these rituals.
During WWII Families and communities were scattered and these social events started fading away. As we look at our lives now, many of us pine for the days when there was time, energy and desire for the rituals which solidified families and communities as well as making necessary work into good fun. The Grissett Brothers provided this for us.
A Southern Cane Grinding is similar to New England's Maple syrup cooking. There the Maple trees are tapped in the early spring for as long as the sap is flowing, from three to five weeks, with syrup boilings whenever the holding tank gets full.
Cane grinding now is usually done in one hectic day, making it more suitable for a work party. Here in the Deep South Sugar Cane has always been the sweetener. Prior to WWII almost every farm in the South had a ‘Cane patch to provide the years’ sweetening and any surplus could be a welcome cash crop for a family. Cane also could provide the enhancer for localized liquid corn products.
The Cane is typically harvested around Thanksgiving though large crops used to take several weeks to be harvested and boiled. First the freshly cut and stripped cane is crushed in a Roller Mill to extract the juice. The raw, greenish brown juice tastes somewhat like vaguely sweet “grass tea”. Some folks really enjoy this treat right out of the crusher. The Mill was traditionally powered by a blind mule walking in a circle while hitched to a pole which directly turned the Mill’s rollers. The more modern use of a tractor PTO for power doesn't seem to affect the taste but for my memories it is noisy, smelly and out of place. Next, the juice is boiled down to syrup consistency.
Thick black smoke from the "Fat Lighter" fire, controlled confusion as Roy and Wayne keep the fire roaring, syrup boiling and the foam skimmed off of the 6' diameter cast iron syrup kettle. A chilly November wind keeps the crowd close to the steaming kettle. It is very hot and humid inside the open syrup shed, in stark contrast to the weather outside. Bees of all types are attracted to the sweet juice & smell but I've never seen anybody get stung. When the viscosity is just right the fire is pulled from the firebox and the syrup is poured off and strained into a container so that it can cool enough to be bottled in old style 1/5 gallon glass bottles. This process is repeated until all of the syrup has been cooked and bottled.
The traditional cane grinding is always accompanied by a “covered dish” dinner (the noon meal for you non-Southerners), served and eaten outside by the syrup shed. All of this is generally accompanied by home made music.
Our band “Scrub Oak” has often been asked to play for the cane grindings at the Grissett’s farm west of Tallahassee. We play our version of “Antique Country” or “Pre-Grass” music (with Brian Murray on fiddle, Virginia Miller playing guitar and Ken Miller playing mandolin) both before and after the meal.
About mid day folks start bringing in covered dish food, salads and deserts. The Blessing and eating can start as soon as Gayle’s fresh biscuits arrive. Then one of the essential rituals is to see how much syrup one can pour into a fresh cooked biscuit and still be able to get it into your mouth - without sticky tragedy. Kids are the most skilled at this sport. Also, every kid old enough to have a pocket knife is carrying their own stick of fresh cane. They deftly peel and cut off chunks to chew - swallowing the juice and then spitting out the empty pulp – and maybe also cutting off a chunk for a smaller, as yet uninitiated kid.
The two Brothers are now only one. The 2011 grinding was a memorial for Wayne Grissett; a beloved husband, father, brother and friend who passed on just a few weeks before the grinding. The crowd was huge as the community came together to remember Wayne and pay its respects to the family. We saw again the many benefits of families and communities coming together for work, fun; for grieving and healing.