Tart cranberry relish, roasted turkey and rich gravy come to mind when most people think of Thanksgiving dinner. But I tend to remember something sweeter, far sweeter than pumpkin or pecan pie, something tooth-shattering, syrupy sweet when I recall Thanksgiving meals.
Great Uncle C.J. held a cane grinding every Thanksgiving. After a long career at Eglin Air Force Base, C.J. Laird retired to his Euchee Valley home in the Panhandle, where previous generations of our Scottish family had settled, and helped establish the first Presbyterian Church in the state of Florida.
As a hobby, and also as an extra source of retirement income, Uncle C.J. revived his father’s knowledge of cane grinding, and would process his own crop of sugar cane as well as those of his neighbors. Some customers would pay cash for his services, and others would trade him a portion of their finished syrup. The final product was of the highest quality and sold in stores in the North Florida area as well as Alabama, and into the Carolinas.
When my husband joined the family, he couldn’t get accustomed to the tangy taste of our cane “sir-up” compared to his familiar northern maple “seer-up,” but was taken with the sophistication of the country operation. Uncle C.J. was quite the engineer for this operation and developed a system where the dark juice would flow from the mill through an underground pipe for about thirty feet and empty into a ten foot long chambered evaporator where it was cooked into a sweet and slightly sharp tasting syrup.
After Thanksgiving dinner (which y’all know is lunch), at my Grandparent’s house, we’d head over to the Valley and watch the activity. Years earlier, a tractor had replaced the gray mule which once hypnotically pulled the mill post round and round. The steam from the cooker produced a sticky smoke, which when mixed with Aqua —Net and big southern hair, caused the ladies to end up with sticky cotton candy heads. Often, there were four generations of family and neighbors pitching in, stoking the wood fire, and taking turns on the dizzying tractor.
That evening back and Grandmother’s house, we’d pull out the leftovers from our earlier feast, but this time, there was fresh syrup for the biscuits. My cousins and I had waited all day to poke our finger in the middle of a fluffy biscuit, fill it with freshly cooked cane syrup and dig in.
Sweeter than pie. Sweeter than cake, Sweeter than tea. The saturated biscuit and all the work that went into it was yet another reason to give thanks.