The cane grinding began when a determined mule named Molly, all 15 hands of her, commenced ambling in a circle to pull a belt that powered a machine that spat out brown juice. "Here is what you need to understand," Steve Melton said, as Molly trudged along. "This is how we used to do it in Florida."
Melton, 62, holds a cane grinding every December at his Pasco County ranch as a reminder of a time when Floridians couldn't buy sugar in a bag at Publix. From the Panhandle to the Keys, folks of every race and creed grew sugar cane, harvested the stalks in the fall, squeezed the stalks into juice and then boiled the juice into sweet syrup they sprinkled into coffee or over pancakes or even meat. In the age before mass communication, a cane grinding was also a social gathering where Floridians might exchange news and gossip, tell jokes and share their dreams.
Now it's ancient history, a demonstration at the state fair, perhaps, or a picture in the history books. Melton and a few other stubborn folks scattered across the state hold out. They invite friends, neighbors and interested historians to watch. By making cane syrup they keep in touch with their past. They think about loved ones long dead, grandmothers who made from-scratch biscuits swimming in cane syrup.
"It's our heritage,'' Steve Melton was saying from beneath his cowboy hat.
At the cane grinding, boys swung on a rope under a moss-draped oak while a toddler lurched through the grass licking an ear of corn dripping butter. From a nearby porch a guitarist, a mandolin player and a fellow plucking a washtub bass performed a timeless bluegrass tune.
Little girls skipped rope. Old men in overalls studied an old tractor with critical eyes. Steve Melton collects old tractors. He also collects antique machines that in another era dug holes and planted seed and harvested corn. The ghosts of the men who sweated and bled over those machines were invisible except in Melton's memory.
He grew up on the farm and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in food production. He has a scientist's sensibilities. At the same time he lives in the past. He has a working grist mill and likes to grind his own wheat. As he walked from the grist mill to where the cane juice was starting to boil, he carried the next generation of his family, his baby grandson, Josiah Flowers.
Cane grinding requires expertise, hard work and long hours for a small payoff. A 10th of an acre of cane produces about 60 gallons of juice. Sixty gallons of juice might boil down to six gallons of thick amber syrup.
Melvin Brenson and Daryl Hildreth watched the iron kettle closely, taking turns to skim off the bubbles of scum. Next to them, Paul Meeker added pine and oak to the fire already sputtering under the kettle.
"They know what they're doing,'' said Millard Sanders, 77. In Alabama he grew up watching his daddy cook cane juice. Sanders met his wife of 58 years, Lois, at a cane grinding. They still like cane syrup with their biscuits.
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After about three hours, the cane juice stopped boiling and started bubbling like molten lava, which meant it was getting thick. Steve Melton dipped a thermometer that indicated 212 degrees. Almost ready. Another instrument, a hydrometer, helped him judge the density of the syrup.
"The old timers didn't need an instrument,'' Melton said through the sweet-smelling steam. "They'd stick in a spoon and watch how the syrup was dripping.''
Musicians put down their instruments. Old men abandoned the study of tractors and walked toward the kettle. It was almost time.
As a crowd gathered, Melton began taking the temperature every two minutes. Then every minute. Temperature was now 221 degrees. Almost perfect. Wait too long and syrup becomes too thick or even burns.
He tossed aside his thermometer.
"Pull the fire! Pull the fire!'' he yelled.
His fireman, Paul Meeker, yanked a pallet, which supported the burning wood, from under the kettle. Ashes spilled onto the concrete floor.
"When the syrup is ready you have to get rid of the heat immediately,'' Melton explained.
He and a helper began ladling syrup out of the kettle and into a 6-gallon vat.
Watching, Bob Waldron looked forward to obtaining a bottle of syrup. He's 70, an Alabama native, who lives in Dade City now. He grew up poor, attended cane grindings as a boy, watched his mama bake biscuits, ate the biscuits with cane syrup.
His wife died in September after a long illness. "She baked the meanest biscuit you ever ate,'' he said. This will be his first Christmas in 48 years without Sandra by his side.
He plans to eat a biscuit, with cane syrup, in her memory.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or at [email protected]