Mom has asked us recently, as we near the anniversary of her father's death, to write down things we remember about Grandad.
I remember Grandad taking us kids (and maybe some adults too?) out to see where Uncle Clem's cane syrup was made. Having always had a push-pull relationship with the syrup -- it almost tasted good, yet its molasses-y bitter edge was always a bit disconcerting, an acquired taste I hadn't really acquired -- I was genuinely curious about seeing where and how it was made. I was especially looking forward to laying eyes on Uncle Clem, who in the little drawing on the label looked like some distant relation of Davy Crockett. Did he even speak English, or would it come out more like Cajun? (I'm not sure why I expected Cajun, but I did.) Did he have any teeth left? With all the syrup he surely ate, and his advanced age -- evoked by the odd tones of red-orange-brownish line drawing on the bright yellow label -- one could rightly question his dental state. And that cap -- was it a real coonskin like Davy's, or just a Walmart knockoff? And if it was a Walmart cap, had Grandmom bought it for him?
All this played through my mind as we meandered down little dirt roads somewhere in East Texas, plumes of red dust billowing behind the car.
When we finally came to a stop and we got out, my ears were greeted by a strange creaking sound emanating from the turnstile-like contraption that connected a cane press to the mule who was walking in circles, making it go. Sometimes the mule stopped. Then, some grimy fellas leaning over against a tree would utter a half-hearted communal "huuunhughghg!" and the mule would start going again. Occasionally, one of them would grab an armful of cane and stuff it down into the top of the press. Impressive amounts of cane juice dripped from the press, and were guided through a series of rickety metal flumes to a large cauldron of boiling pre-syrup liquid. Leaves from the nut tree (hickory? pecan?) above dropped lazily into the pot from time to time and were snared in the thick, foamy scum at the surface, along with small twigs, bugs, and maybe a lizard or two. From time to time, someone walked over and skimmed the pot.
I never saw Uncle Clem.
I didn't want to eat that syrup again for a long time either, although thinking about how it was made, and how that resembled the maple syrup process I had read about in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, was a continual source of personal fascination. I needed something to think about on long car trips.
We did leave with several stalks of ribbon cane, which Grandad later doled out to us cousins and siblings, gathered around for little pre-peeled cane chunks to chew to a cottony pulp while he told stories about syrup-making, and golfing buddies, and wars, and fishing, and favors received and owed.