MOCCASIN GAP — Frank Bradley credits his long life to hard work, homemade sausage and buttered grits. At 84, he is still willowy, still a tough old cob with a bone-crushing handshake. • Sometimes, just to keep his cardiologist happy, he eats Cheerios for breakfast. But not every day. He's a Florida boy. One day he'll tell his doctor all about grits — the food that fueled rural Florida. • "Lot of folks today don't even know what real grits taste like,'' he laments. • In the woods above Tallahassee, only 6 miles from the Georgia border, Bradley operates one of Florida's last gristmills. He buys corn from a neighbor and grinds it in a mill older than he is.
Unlike the bland stuff available in supermarkets and city restaurants, stone-ground grits have real corn taste. Grit is going to get caught in your teeth even if you chew thoroughly. A Florida boy eats his grits with fried eggs and sausage. It helps if the Florida boy knows how to make sausage.
In Frank Bradley's family, grits and sausage go together.
In 1910, his grandmother, Mary Bradley, started selling sausage from her kitchen window among the oaks and hickories about 10 miles north of Tallahassee. In 1920, her son, L.E., added a gristmill to his property. In 1927, he opened Bradley's County Store.
The ramshackle store is still going strong in the 21st century. Bradleys are still grinding sausage, using Mary Bradley's secret recipe, and they're still milling grits. Cholesterol — and Publix — be damned.
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Once, every Southern community had a gristmill, powered by water, steam or an internal combustion engine. Now they are mostly museum pieces, like mule-drawn plows or cane-syrup kettles. But at Moccasin Gap, named after the venomous snake common in nearby creeks, Frank Bradley carries on tradition.
Mister Frank, as everybody knows him, is officially retired. But his daughter, Jan Bradley Parker, who runs their store now, says "There's not a lot of 'sit' in daddy.'' He wakes before the sun, eats something that sticks to his ribs, goes out to check his cows, walks 2 miles to please his cardiologist, then drives his pickup to the store.
He is always happy when sacks of corn await him.
"I'll grind you some grits right now,'' he says.
He heads for a shed his daddy built after the end of World War I. Once it was a sturdy building; now it is more sawdust than boards and nails. Mister Frank, who keeps the building propped up with a pole, is cooled by a breeze that rushes through gaps in the wall and floor.
He attaches one end of a long rubber belt to a pulley on his 1955 Ford tractor. He attaches the other end to a pulley on a machine about the size of a stove. He runs outside and cranks up the tractor. The rubber belt, rotating, turns the pulley that moves the heavy stones inside the mill.
Back inside the shack, he pours dried corn into the hopper. He twiddles a knob. If he rotates the knob to the right, he makes meal for corn bread. To the left, he gets coarse grits.
The tractor roars and spews diesel fumes into the hot air. Inside the shed, the milling machine sputters and coughs until corn dust floats through beams of sunlight. Corn dust covers Mister Frank's arm. It covers his face. He breathes in corn dust, but he's a tough old cob. It hasn't killed him yet.
Last year he milled 10 tons of grits. He sold it to grizzled old men in overalls and pretty Tallahassee women with painted nails and gold jewelry. He sold most of his grits by mail. Some people still have long memories or a yearning to try something new that is actually old.
"When I was boy, back in the '20s, people was so poor. But they didn't go hungry," he says, except it sounds like "hongry."
"We ate grits with everything. We'd kill a hog, shoot a turkey, get some fish. Eat them with grits.
"Every Saturday morning folks would ride through the woods in their buggies and carry corn to daddy's mill. Dad'd grind their corn. Nobody had money, so it was all in trade. They'd give him maybe some of their corn, or three quarters of a hog, or eggs.''
They ate grits with squirrel. In the Keys they ate grits with an easy-to-catch panfish known as grunt. In west-central Florida, poor folks filled their bellies with mullet and grits.
The Depression ended. World War II veterans who moved to Florida often didn't know what to make of grits. Maybe they tried them once or twice. Maybe not. In 21st century Florida, where more folks drink orange juice concentrate than fresh-squeezed, grits are no longer a staple. Fewer people fish. Fewer people garden. Almost nobody hunts. Mister Frank's Florida is about gone.
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He makes politically incorrect sausage once a week. Some factory-type operations import boxes of meat for grinding, but not Mister Frank. He wants to meet the farmers, look into their eyes, shake their hands, examine their pigs. He buys robust animals, not too big but not too small either, about 125 pounds.
At dusk, they are led into the slaughterhouse out back. Within 15 minutes they are ground to bits. He adds Grandma Mary's secret 99-year-old spice recipe just before the ground meat is squeezed into gut casings. From there, sausages are hung like thick ropes in a dog-proof smokehouse.
Mister Frank lights the green hickory. Smoke — it has to be 148 degrees — pours in. Four hours later he has Bradley's Sausage. Last year he sold 150,000 pounds. He ate some himself, but no need to tell his cardiologist.
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Bradley's Country Store has changed little over the last century. That's because Mister Frank's daddy built it to last with hard yellow pine and shiny tin that still sheds water like a boar's back.
The store, shaded by enormous oaks, is 80 feet long, 30 feet wide and dimly lit. In its four aisles customers can find B.C. Headache Powder, Honey Bee Snuff, Moon Pies and Yoo-hoo. The Bradleys sell overalls, suspenders, cane poles and wart remover among other old Florida staples.
"In the old days, nobody had to pay for their goods until the first of the month,'' says Jan Bradley Parker, 52. "My granddaddy would keep track by pencil in a ledger.''
Miss Jan, as she is called by locals, grew up sweeping floors starting when she was 3. She went away and worked for a big company in Atlanta, but moved back to help her family in 1987.
Miss Jan has three daughters. One is a nurse, one is in college, one is in high school. The great big world is calling them, but who knows what will happen? One day they may want to run a store and sell sausage and grits and keep the modern world at bay a little while longer.
"The people, they've always appreciated Bradley's,'' Frank Bradley was telling an old customer on a summer afternoon. "I'd hate for it to end. We've had ordinary folks and important folks buy from us. Lawton Chiles loved my grits. He'd come out to the gristmill and watch me grind corn for his grits. He ate grits in the governor's mansion. He was sweet on my grits.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."