A warm, firm hand is gently shaking my shoulder. A loving voice is urging me to get up.
It’s still dark outside and my senses are dull after a night of solid sleep. But the smell of bacon and coffee soon permeate my consciousness and I realize where I am: Grandmamma and Granddaddy’s house a few miles outside the tiny farming community of Neeses, S.C
It’s the day after Thanksgiving 1975. I’m 15 years old and I’m here to work.
“Your granddaddy is out at the mill,” Grandmamma said. “He got up about 4 o’clock to get the fire going.”
I took a long drink of coffee and looked at my Timex – 6:15 a.m. I shuddered at the thought of being up two hours earlier.
But then again, it was time to make sugar cane syrup.
My granddaddy was known far and wide around Orangeburg County as a master syrup maker. For as long as anyone could remember, Leroy Fogle would grow sugar cane in Orangeburg County, South Carolina, harvest just before Thanksgiving and make sugar cane syrup on the day after Thanksgiving – in a time long before Black Friday existed.
He sold the precious few gallons that he produced – if you were lucky enough to be on his list. If you were family, then, of course, you were guaranteed a jar of the magical elixir.
Unless you grew up in the South, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve never tasted sugar cane syrup. It’s not maple syrup. But like maple syrup, it’s brown and sweet – but thicker. And it tastes amazing on homemade biscuits. It’s a little taste of heaven.
The recipe is simple. You crush sugar cane, extract the juice, boil it down, remove the impurities by constantly skimming the boiling liquid.
I finished my breakfast and made my way over to the syrup mill, where Granddaddy was cranking the tractor. A huge belt was hooked to a wheel on the back of the tractor which turned the huge gears of the mill. It was my job to feed the sugar cane into the mill where it was crushed. Out of the sugar cane would flow a sweet green liquid – the basic ingredient for table sugar, rum and sugar cane syrup.
“I could have made a lot more money if I made rum instead of syrup,” Granddaddy said to me with a wink.
As the sugar cane was crushed, the cloudy green juice was hauled into the shed and poured into the cooker. There are still a number of folks who make syrup in big kettles, but Granddaddy’s cooker was unique. It was a large rectangular, flat-bottomed tub made of copper. It was sectioned by copper dividers, but the juice could move from section to section thanks to small wells underneath the dividers.
We poured the juice into the cooker, which was heated by a wood fire underneath. Granddaddy’s trusted crew of cookers would use perforated skimmers with long wooden handles to catch the foamy green bubbles from the top of the heated cane juice to remove the impurities.
Walking into the shed in full flow was to immerse yourself into a sweet, sticky sauna. Sugary steam surrounded you and filled your lungs. Your lips were coated and your nostrils filled with sweetness which would make Willy Wonka jealous. Slowly, the cane juice would heat and move from one end of the cooker to the other, growing heavier and browner as it neared perfection.
Finally after hours of cooking Grandaddy would take his skimmer and let the syrup drip. He would catch a little on a spoon, let it cool and then taste. Sometimes, he would say “It tastes a little druggy,” and instruct the crew to continue to remove the impurities. But at some point, he would give the team a nod and the syrup was ready for bottling.
We cooked syrup from before dawn to well after dark, interrupted only by friends and relatives who would come by to witness a sweet taste of history that was passing far too quickly.
Thanksgivings came and went. I went to college, moved abroad for 10 years. Grandaddy, of course, grew older and finally had to give up making syrup. When he passed, there was some talk by some of the grandchildren to revive the craft, but somehow none of us ever found the time.
I never had the sense to ask Granddaddy where he learned his craft. I have no idea if he learned it from his father, a friend or if he just picked it along the way. I just know that every Thanksgiving , I’m thankful that my granddaddy taught me a little about making cane syrup, but a whole lot more about being a man.