Saturday morning at 7 a.m., I dragged myself from the warmth of my bed, performed my morning ablutions, and drove to Hazlehurst for my very first cane grinding. Jimmy Ryles invited me along with quite a few other people, including my sister Sarah Nell and my cousin Max. He even promised us breakfast. His long counter was covered with sausages, scrambled eggs, hot, buttered grits, sawmill gravy, pancakes, and big fluffy biscuits along with Jimmy’s syrup. And though I rarely eat breakfast, I did Saturday. Might I say I thoroughly enjoyed it, too.
After we’d all had our fill, I went outside to see the grinding itself. Jimmy put me right to work alongside his grandson, who was feeding several stalks of cane into the press, while I sent in two or three. Of course, it was my very first time. The amount of juice squirting from the cane surprised me and wet my shirt and forearms as I worked. As I stood up there on that platform feeding cane stalks into the press that Jimmy’s grandfather bought in 1922, I felt a connection with history and wondered why I’d never been that involved with cane grinding before in my whole life. Why? Cousin Max told me about rising from his bed at 4 a.m. to get started with the cane when he was a boy living with our grandparents. Of course, I was female, and that grandfather died long before I was born. My maternal grandfather made syrup, too. I heard about it but never saw it. I’m glad Jimmy is passing the process down to his children and grandchildren. I wish Mama and Daddy had passed down more of the old ways to me.
Mama did teach me to make biscuits the old-fashioned way with flour up to my elbows, real lard, and buttermilk. I had to cajole and sweet-talk her for quite a while, but she finally gave in and taught me. I have that old tradition down to a fine art now, even though I confess that I don’t always do it the messy way with my hands. The blade of my KitchenAid mixer can go through the dishwasher for cleaning. It doesn’t get dough all over the kitchen either. Sometimes though when my boys are home, I make the big cathead biscuits by hand. They are mighty tasty with a slathering of butter—the real kind, and a tablespoon of last summer’s homemade fig jam. Never ruin a good biscuit with some substitute for butter. I learned that all by myself.
Every fall as soon as the weather turned cold, Grandpa Hayes butchered a hog. He gave the intestines, brains, and head to Mama, but it was understood that she would make the hogshead cheese, also known as souse, and give part of it back to him. He swore that she was the only one in the family of 11 children who could make it properly. She boiled it for hours and then carefully picked the meat off, seasoned it with a blend of spices and herbs, and then pressed it into a loaf to be sliced. The whole family loved it—all the siblings, that is. Sarah Nell and I refused it.
Now that I think about it, some of Mama’s old practices I have no desire to learn. I don’t want to raise and butcher my own chicken, pig, cow, or turkey. Assorted meats from the grocery story are fresh enough for me. And that old delicacy of the south—chitlins, no thanks. Well I remember Mama working out in the back yard with washtubs full of cold water. She’d turn those intestines inside out and wash and wash and wash. She refused to eat any that she had not washed herself. Then she’d cook them up for her and Daddy—sometimes with scrambled eggs, but mostly she cooked brains with eggs. Sarah Nell and I were happy for our dear parents to have those dishes all to themselves. We refused even a taste, no matter how they tried to convince us that it was a part of our heritage or that it was tasty. None for us, thank you just the same. That’s one part of our heritage that can die off as far as I’m concerned.
Oh, well. Maybe I have enough of my heritage every time I stir that lard (sometimes Crisco) and buttermilk into the White Lily flour and place those biscuits in my well-greased cast iron skillet. They come out of the oven perfect every time; Sarah Nell and I both like them right well.