The sweetest time of the year

Published 11:00 pm Friday, November 16, 2012

Perrie Sylvester McCartha’s Annual Syrup Cooking Festival features syrup made with a dozen or more varieties of sugar cane. His annual festival will be from sunup to mid-afternoon today and Sunday and at the same times the weekend after Thanksgiving. From U.S. Highway 231, take State Road 123 (toward Ariton) and go about eight miles. Turn left on County Road 221. From Pike County turn left at the Pea River bridge about eight miles south of Brundidge.

They’re brothers – Perrie Sylvester McCartha and William Elijah McCartha – and they’re thicker than sugar cane syrup.

Each November the brothers head down the road to the syrup shack with every intention of cooking off several hundred gallons of sugar cane syrup that’s just as good as what they cooked off last year.

“Can’t do no better than that,” Perrie Sylvester said with a smile.

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The McCartha brothers have gained the reputation of making the best sugar cane syrup that can be bought. And, they’re backed by 17 years of standing over a hot, sticky syrup kettle and the teachings of their daddy, Perrie S. McCartha, Sr., who was the granddaddy of all syrup makers back during the 1920s and 1930s.

William Sylvester is four years old than his brother so he was privy to more on-the-job training and he likes to get Perrie Sylvester’s dander up by saying that he taught him all he kowns about cooking syrup.

“I’ve taught him everything I know about cooking syrup but I won’t teach him nothing about making moonshine, cause that’s against the law,” William Elijah said, with a grin that spread from ear to ear.

The brothers enjoy ribbing each other almost more than they like cooking syrup together.

The McCartha brothers were no bigger than gallon jugs when they began spending most of their November days at the syrup kettle.

“Back in the old days, we’d work a mule at the cane mill,” Perrie Sylvester McCartha said. “We’d tie an ear of corn on a long pole and put it out in front of the ol’ mule. He’d follow that ear of corn and go around and around grinding the cane. We’d stop every now and then and let the mule have the ear. Then we’d tie on another ear and the ol’ mule would get going again. We’d change the mules out because pulling a cane mill’s hard work and they would get tired.”

McCartha said he has more cane grinding, syrup cooking stories than he could shake a stalk of cane at.

“Back then, we fired the kettle with wood and it was hard keeping the temperature just right,” he said. “You could ruin a kettle of syrup real easy. But my daddy knew how to keep the fire going and that’s why he was such a good syrup maker.”

As the cane juice cooked, the skimmin’s or the residue, would be “skimmed” off in a barrel to feed the hogs.

“If you left the skimmin’s in the barrel too long, they’d ferment and the hogs would get as drunk as cooter Brown,” McCartha said, laughing. “Why, I’ve even seen farmers get in the skimmin’s and they’d get drunk and lay around in the yard.”

McCartha said that cane skimmin’s make good medicine.

“When men got sick, the women folks would put cane skimmin’s on the stove in a canner and fit a pipe over the valve that releases the steam. The women would attach copper tubing to the pipe and twirl it around through some water. The steam coming through it would cool and condense and you’d have medicine … or you might call it moonshine.”

Stories flow as readily as the syrup at the McCartha brothers’ annual syrup cooking and folks enjoy the friendly banter between the brothers along with the “learning” they get.

“Not a lot of folks have been to a syrup making and they have a lot of questions to ask and we know the answers,” Perrie Sylvester McCartha said with a smile. “We enjoy talking to folks and most of them are real interested in what we’re doing.”

The McCartha brothers cook their syrup in evaporator pans and with propane heat.

“This way is a whole lot easier than the old way because the temperature is consant,” McCartha said. “The syrup starts out as juice and ends up as syrup. The juice goes in one pan and makes its way up a little crooked path, up and down, up and down. When all the water cooks out, you’ve got syrup. Juice comes in at one end and syrup pours out the other end all the time.”

McCartha said what makes the brothers’ syrup so unique is that many syrup makers add corn syrup and such to make it lighter and sweeter.

“We don’t put anything in our syrup,” he said. “It’s pure sugar cane syrup.”

The McCarthas can cook up to 100 gallons of syrup a day and they will be cooking the best syrup today and Sunday at the Perrie McCartha Annual Syrup Cooking Festival near Ariton.

The syrup that will be cooked off this weekend is from a special variety of Florida syrup that yields the sweetest pure cane syrup anywhere around.

“All of our syrup is good but this will be better than good,” McCartha said. “We’ll cook it from early Saturday morning until the middle of the afternoon and we might quit a little earlier on Sunday.”

The Festival will continue the weekend after Thanksgiving and McCartha guarantees good syrup will be cooked off then, too.

“We’ll call that weekend POJ Days or Pride of Jamaica or Pure Ol’ Juice days,” he said, with a smile. “But no matter what day you come, we’ll have mighty good syrup cooking and some stories to tell and they’ll all be as true and good as the syrup … guaranteed.