The sweetness at the end of the road makes the winding and bumpy trip worth the effort

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 3, 2003

The road to Green Acres is narrow and winding and a little on the bumpy side, but when the air is sweet and thick with syrup making, traffic along the dirt path is sure and steady.

Making cane syrup at Thanksgiving time is a tradition that has just about died out. But, around some parts of the county, there's a syrup-making revival going on and there are more converts to the old tradition than one might think.

When Atlas Green put a fire under the kettle this Thanksgiving, there were more people around than you could shake a stick at.

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Some were seasoned syrup-makers. Others were green horns, but they were all there to take part in an old tradition and to enjoy the fellowship that comes with syrup making.

But, anyone who has ever worked in a syrup shack will attest to the long, hard work necessary to bring about the syrupy-sweetness.

Syrup making is a labor of love - simply, and strictly, speaking.

"Ain't nobody gonna make any money on syrup," Green said, laughing, as he pulled the skimmer across the kettle. "Nobody."

Syrup making actually starts with the stubble being laid in the ground in the fall and ends with the fire under the kettle the next fall.

"There's a lot that goes into making syrup," Pete Lott said. "You've gotta grow the cane, strip it, cut it, haul it to the mill, grind the juice, cook it off and put it in the jars. You have to raise a lot of cane to make a little syrup."

Lott said it takes about 800 stalks of cane to make 80 gallons of juice and it takes 80 gallons of juice to make 10 gallons of syrup.

"That's why cane syrup is $25 a gallon and you still can't make any money with it," Green said from behind a cloud of sticky, sweet steam.

The syrup shack was filled primarily with "observers" and a few skimmers and packers.

One of the observers kidded Green that he was cheating on tradition with a gas flame under the syrup kettle.

"You can work yourself to death with wood," Green said. "Anyway, gas keeps the juice at a more even temperature and a better chance at a good batch of syrup."

Preston Senn, who has many batches of syrup to his credit, quipped, "Know what happens if you scorch a kettle of syrup? You've gotta pour it out on the ground or give it to the hogs. Don't want to do that. That's a lot of work down the drain."

After about five hours, Green Acres' first kettle of syrup was cooking off and several folks were working like wildfire skimming and bottling the syrup. When the last jar of syrup had been drawn, wiped clean and packed in a box, it was time to clean the kettle and pour in enough juice for another making.

Next to the syrup shack, a floppy-eared mule was pulling the cane mill, squeezing out more juice for sipping and for syrup.

Lewis Lampley was dipping buckets of cane juice from a barrel and it was being passed to the kettle in fire-line fashion.

"I grew up doing this," Lampley said. "We lived out on the old Edgar Steed Plantation and every fall, we made syrup. But, this is the first time, I've done it in a long, long time."

Lampley recently moved back to Brundidge after being away for many years.

"It's good to be back home," he said, as he helped a youngster lift a bucket of juice to pass along. "Not many people make syrup anymore and I want to be a part of the revival of syrup making. That's why I'm here."

Lampley said syrup making used to be a necessity of life. "Now, it's a hobby for most people. I can remember how much work it was - chopping wood and feeding the fire. And, the bees would be as thick as the syrup you were pouring up. Today, the work is not as hard and everything is kept so clean that the bees aren't swarming. I don't know when I've enjoyed anything as much."

Inside the syrup shack, a lesson in syrup making was under way.

"It takes about an hour for the juice to get to a boiling point," Green said, as he watched to pot.

"About 210 degrees. When the syrup starts to boil, it heats up. When it gets to 228 degrees you turn the fire off."

Lott explained that the skimmings are the impurities in the juice and they have to be "skimmed off" and poured into a barrel so that all that is left in the kettle is the good stuff.

If left standing for about two weeks, the skimmings will ferment and make a fine barrel of "Christmas spirit."

"The skimmings will turn to beer if you don't watch out," Lott said, laughing. "And, if the hogs get in the skimmings they'll get as high as a kite."

All the seasoned syrup makers had stories to tell about hogs getting so drunk they couldn't get up and cows lowing gleefully in the fields after partaking of the barrel.

Chatter and laughter filled every available space at Green Acres and folks floated back and forth between the syrup making on the hill and the cooking in the shed in the bottom.

A big, fine wild hog was turning on the spit in the cook shed. Everybody was welcome to grab a knife, cut off a piece of meat and stick it between two pieces of bread.

"Cut you off a hunk," Brady Austin said has he turned the spit. "There's barbecue sauce and tea on the table."

Guests at the shed were encouraged to try the jugs of homemade dill pickles and pickled okra "next to the barbecue sauce."

"Nothing better than this," Senn said. "It's good eating."

The sun had started to drop in the sky, but the "home" fires were burning - one under the syrup kettle and other under the hog. No one was in a hurry to leave - for it was Thanksgiving time and friends were busy reviving an ol' Thanksgiving tradition.