Sorghum Syrup

My brother has asked me to write about the time we made sorghum syrup.

“I wasn’t there.” I told him.

“Yes you were,” He said, a little hurt.

“I know that I wasn’t there Zach.”

“You were too! You helped me load the cane in the mill. That mule almost kicked you in the head. We drank the juice straight from the tap.”

“That was you and someone else.”

“You was there Zane! We went with Pop. Twice!”

I wasn’t there, but I don’t think that discredits me from being able to take you there. After all, Mark wasn’t there and we count his book as Gospel. This is not a work of fiction, although I was not a firsthand witness. Either that or it was such a bad experience that I’ve suppressed it in my memory.

Most of the time when Pop picked us boys up we were going to work. There were a few occasions where Pop picked us up for an event that maybe he found entertaining, like a parade, or making syrup. No matter what mask of entertainment these activities donned, Zach and I had been around enough to see through the thin disguise and identify work. Alas, we hadn’t much say in the matter. So when Pop picked us up to make Sorghum Syrup, we were not under the illusion that we were going to merely observe the process of making syrup. We were going to be very much involved in that process.

Sorghum is a naturally growing plant in the South. If you cultivate enough of it, you can make sorghum syrup. I think it yields about three gallons to the acre. Sorghum syrup is a very thick and dark syrup with an acquired taste. There is a process for getting the syrup from the plants. First you need to gather the plants, or cane. Then you put the whole cane into a mill, which presses out the juice. You cook the juice which gives you syrup. As long as the syrup doesn’t burn, you can mix it with equal parts butter and put it on your biscuits and it’s delicious. Well I think it’s delicious, but I also eat Lengua and Cabeza at the Taco Truck. Zach thought it tasted like burnt motor oil.

The process sounds pretty straightforward, until you find out that you have to manually load the cane, or even worse be the mill engine. Fortunately, someone had already gathered the stalks into a trailer. All we had to do was feed it to the mill. Do you remember in Sunday School when you learned about the blinded Samson grinding at the mill? That’s what Zach had to do. At first there was a mule hitched to the mill walking in circles, but it almost kicked Zach’s brains out while he was feeding cane to the mill. In the end Zach ended up walking in circles to power the mill like a medieval serf. They did let him drink some of the pure sweet juice that was running out of a tap on the side of the mill.

This juice flowed through an open channel over a heated metal plate a few yards long. By the time it made it to the end of the line it was sufficiently cooked enough to be canned. They used what looked like old coffee cans to package the syrup. I’m sure it was great fun to Pop and all the old men that were sitting around at the end of the line talking and laughing while Zach worked like a borrowed mule. At the end of the day Zach was exhausted and grimy with sweat and dust after doing the work of a mule. As a token of their gratitude, the old men in charge gave him a can of syrup. I think I ate most of that syrup, but I know that I wasn’t there.

The Liar’s Bench

Does your local gas station have a bench out front?

Back when I was in the hay and fence building business with Pop, we would often stop for fuel and refreshments at Watson’s Grocery in Vandiver. There were a couple of good reasons for that. First, the base of operations, or “Barn”, was located half a mile from the store. Second, and perhaps more important, Watson’s Grocery was the only store in town.

We often frequented the store at the crack of dawn when working men filled trucks with diesel and filled cups with black coffee, and while old retired men sat on a bench outside to fill everyone’s ears with their good natured banter. My Dad told me that was called the Liar’s Bench. He said it in an official way, as if it were an elected office.

Anyone could sit on the bench, but not everyone could operate from the office of the bench. Similar to how having your picture taken sitting in your congressman’s big leather desk chair does not give you authority to lower taxes. In order to fill the office of Liar’s Bench, and not merely occupy a seat in front of a gas station, I believe that there were a set of unwritten requirements. It seemed like you needed to be an old man. You had more credibility (if indeed there was any credibility on the Liar’s Bench) if you were retired. It also didn’t hurt to have a nickname, like Jitter, or Buddy. If you couldn’t swing a nickname, an informal prefix like “Big” would do.

You also had duties, you couldn’t just sit and not talk. You had to be willing to engage every person you saw come to the store with a chiding remark about getting a late start or something like that, but not in a mean manner. You had to have a laugh rate of at least 90%. If the customers were clearly out of towners, it was ok to just nod your head at them. When people came out of the store you had to engage them again, this time with a heartfelt inquiry about their family, like “How’s ye mom’n’em?” This is when you found out who was in the hospital, who got fired, who got arrested, who had a heart attack and important things like that.

Above all, you had to be an entertaining talker to occupy a place on the bench. Some of the best hunting and fishing lies were told there along with ancient jokes. Every once in a while you meet people that can read the phone book in an entertaining way. Such were the men of the bench. As Jerry Clower said, “They didn’t tell funny stories, they told stories funny.” I found myself grinning and chuckling just overhearing these men talk.

I think they became great talkers because they didn’t sit on the bench to seek solitude, they sat on the bench because they wanted to talk to someone. Perhaps it was loneliness that got those old men up at the crack of dawn to sit in front of a convenience store and stare like puppies at the work trucks pulling in to fill up. They’d brag about being retired when they saw the weary looks of the working men on Mondays, but I think there was something in them that wished they could pile in the truck and go to work. Just like there was something in those working men that wished that could sit on the bench and waste the day away.

These worlds met briefly each morning and communed together at the Liar’s Bench. It was the Roman Forum of the community. A place where the local news and gossip were disseminated. I strongly doubt there were many original ideas, or great breakthroughs in ingenuity ever developed on the bench. But you might get a different answer if you drive out to Vandiver and ask one of the men who currently hold down a seat on the Liar’s Bench.

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Parades

My family and I recently moved to Cullman, Alabama. It’s not necessarily important that you know that, but I thought I’d get it out of the way, and use it as an excuse for not blogging in over a month. Anyway, I thought the best thing that I could do as a new member of the community was to attend the Cullman Christmas Parade the weekend after we arrived. Sarah and I got the kids all bundled up and we traipsed downtown in the frigid 50 degree weather to get some hot chocolate and cookies, and to stand on the sidewalk to watch the parade. It was a disjointed affair because the parade route crosses a major highway that can’t be closed, so there were several ten minute gaps as the high school marching bands, politicians, and fire trucks waited at the red light. As if seeing Mickey and Minnie Mouse, a live church band playing on a trailer, Batman riding a motorcycle, a real live member of the state legislature, some real estate agents square-dancing, and cousin Eddie walking behind his Winnebago wasn’t enough, we got the added excitement of getting to walk as a mob on the road as we made our way en masse over to the park to see the Christmas Tree lighting. There is something exhilarating about walking down the middle of the road, It’s a lot wider than it seems when you’re in a vehicle.  When we got to the park, we all sang Silent Night as a community, which was really quite moving. Then we listened to the Christmas Story, the real Christmas story read straight out of the Bible by a City Councilman. Wesley missed the actual tree lighting part of the ceremony because he had to make an emergency bathroom break in the shrubbery.

The most dangerous and entertaining part of the after events at Christmas Parades is the speeches. When I was a kid, back before the internet, the whole town would come out for the Christmas Parade. They’d stand on the street and watch it coming and going. Then we’d walk to the parking lot in front of the City Hall/Police Department and listen to a choir sing on the portable stage that had been hastily brought out of it’s storage place behind the Water Board. The choir was amplified by a single microphone in hopes of combatting the steady flow of traffic that had been waiting for the parade to finish. After this, there were usually speeches by local dignitaries. It was on this stage that one of the most memorable speeches in the history of Vincent, Alabama was given by the drunken Honorable Judge Jimmy Sharrbutt. I’m sorry to play it up so much, because I only remember two lines, but they have become colloquialisms in the language of my family.

“When I saw the lights under the bridge, I cried.”

“Oh. And anotha’ thang. One of them Hassett boys broke my arm.”

When you’re a kid, a lot of times you don’t notice when someone is drunk. As an adult you can recall their behavior, speech, and countenance and clearly see that they were drunk.

After the speech we would light the giant Christmas Tree, the largest live Christmas tree in the State of Alabama, that stood by the Norfolk Southern railroad. This tree, along with the giant red and white plaster Christmas bells from the 70’s, for me are the epitome of municipal Christmas Decorations.

There is a timeless feeling that comes with a parade in a small town. It’s something that’s left over from centuries past, when people were not afraid to come out and see their neighbors. Parades are a lasting ritual from the time before television, the internet, and smartphones made the world a much smaller and less enchanted place. The wonder of technology has nearly stripped us of the wonder of the moment. Parades are one of the last remaining purely community gatherings. I’m glad my kids got to experience a genuine small town Christmas Parade, even if there were no drunk Judges.

Wrasslin’

When I was about three years old, I convinced Mom to get me a Deluxe Hulkmania Workout Set, complete with a set of dumbbells, jump rope, hand gripper, a headband, a Hulk Hogan poster, and a cassette tape of Hulk Hogan giving a forty minute inspirational speech and walking you through a workout regimen, not to mention some pretty sweet 80’s hair metal music. I thought Hulk Hogan was the strongest man in the world.

Dad taught us how to wrestle when we were just barely old enough to walk. He’d lay in the floor and we’d climb over him. It was great fun. For the most part, Zach dominated me in the wrestling ring. He was overgrown for his age, I think he might have been born with a full set of teeth. The only time that I got the best of Zach in a wrestling match was when I wiped a booger the size of cornflake on him.

It took a few years for me and my brother to realize that professional wrestling was entertainment and the wrestlers were acting. If you suplex somebody for real, it hurts. Every week my family would have supper at least once at my grandparents, that’s where Zach and I would watch wrestling on their television. To a little boy there are not many things cooler than a man with painted face and baseball bat dropping out of the ceiling by a cable to fight a man who had 24 inch biceps who had just ripped his shirt off.

During the commercial breaks, Zach would try out any new moves that he had learned. On me. We’d usually wrestle until we knocked a whole in the sheetrock, or I got a bloody nose. It’s a wonder that we didn’t tear the house down.

From time to time, Mom would go to the grocery store leaving us at home with strict instructions to behave. We’d give her about five minutes to get down the road before we moved the coffee table out of the way and set up a wrestling ring. The living room had everything you needed for a wrestling match, a couple of comfortable chairs, an ottoman, a couch, and forty-‘leven pillows to help soften the landing as your brother pile drived you. There were always a bunch of decorations that we’d have to move too, like the ducks. Mom had about half a dozen wooden ducks that contributed no practical purpose to the functionality of the room. Over the years, we broke the head off of every single one of those ducks while we were wrestling. We’d spend about five minutes wrestling, and twenty five minutes in veterinary surgery supergluing duck heads back on. She didn’t notice either. We finally told her after we’d gotten married.

My great grandparents went to Boaz, Alabama to a live wrestling event at the National Guard Armory, because that’s what classy people did for entertainment in late 50’s. I think that armory was about the only thing in Boaz, but I might be wrong. Even today, it’s hard to imagine driving to town like Boaz for anything. The main wrestling event involved Tojo Yamamoto, a Hawaiian born American wrestler whose real name was Harold Watanabe. The wrestling company capitalized on the strong anti-Japanese sentiment that was still very much alive in the decades following the war, especially in the South, and Tojo played the bad guy.

Tojo Yamamoto was booed and heckled as he entered the ring. In the microphone, he indicated that he wanted to “Make aporogy.”

“My country, they bomb Pearl Harbor. I so sorry.” The arena went deadly quiet as he continued. “It wrong thing to do. I so sorry.” Now the crowd began to cheer

“I wish instead they bomb BOAZ!”

I grew up hearing this story every so often and it always produced uncontrollable laughter in a few of my kinfolks. Mainly my dad, who often has a hard time finishing a funny story once he gets “Tickled.”

The fact that this story has survived and still produces a strong reaction gives me hope that my ancestors understood that there was a strong element of show business in professional wrestling, and I’d like to believe that they went to the wrestling match for the humor.

Sleeping at Church

I usually went to sleep during the evening services.

I used to sprawl out on the front pew at church, use a stack of Sing Unto The Lord hymnals for a pillow and go to sleep. I would try to stay awake by finding faces in the wooden paneling and trim in the sanctuary, but that might have just made it worse. There was a lion, and two bearded old men in the wood grain of the door frame that led to the Sunday School classrooms. If you saw them once, you saw them every time. I’d also try to find characters in the carpet, or look at the map of the Middle East that hung behind the organ. But as a child, these were futile attempts to keep Old Man Nod from riding on my eyelids. I usually went to sleep during the evening services.

It’s one thing for a small child to sleep during the service, but another thing for a grown up to fall asleep at church. I’m sure it’s discouraging for a minister to look out at the congregation and see an adult nodding. My Uncle James was bad about sleeping during church. Or anywhere else for that matter. He fall asleep once at the red light. As dangerous as it may be to fall asleep at a red light, I don’t think anyone noticed. When he woke up he didn’t realize how long he’d been there, or how many green lights had come and gone. It was long enough for someone behind him to blow the horn. I’m sure he was embarrassed, but not too embarrassed to tell on himself so everyone else could have a good laugh. Southerners are considerate that way.

He was sleeping at church one Sunday and the pastor asked him to stand up and pray over the offering. Someone nudged him and said, “James, they need you to pray.” He stood up and dismissed them. Someone else told that on him, some things are too embarrassing to share yourself.

Barbecue, Barbeque, BBQ

It’s that time of year. Barbecue season. I’ve always struggled with how to spell that, but WordPress autocorrect just informed me that the proper spelling was “Barbecue”. I bet they won’t tell that to Golden Rule Barbeque in Irondale, which has been around at least hundred years longer than autocorrect. They probably won’t tell Fat Man’s Bar B Que in Pell City either. Or Full Moon Bar-B-Que. Anyway, I’m still not sure how to spell it, because I “ain’t never eat no” BBQ that WordPress cooked. But even if I can’t spell it, I can define it. At least I’ll give it a try. Defining barbecue is like defining women. You’ll excite half the people and offend the rest.

First off, barbecue is a noun. I think it’s pork. Mainly Boston Butt’s, but if you want to throw some ribs on the grill while we’re waiting for the butts to get done I’ll still eat them and call it barbecue. I eat so many ribs one year when I was a boy that it was several years before I had another one. If you want to get deep and go to the root meaning of the word barbecue, it means “cooking a whole hog on a wood fired grill”. Which is where we get the term, “Whole Hog.” Which means that you go all out doing something. I’ll use it in a sentence so you’ll understand it better.

“Zane is taking this writing thing seriously, I heard he’s going whole hog and trying to write a book.”

Barbecue also has to have some sauce. My Uncle Johnny was always the self appointed grill master at all of our family get togethers in the summer. Not without good reason though, he is an excellent cook. He would crupper up his own sauce recipe using Kraft Original as a base. “Cattleman’s tastes too much like ketchup, don’t use it.” He would say. When the meat was done, he would pull it apart or chop it up, put it in a deep pan and pour enough sauce over it that it would  almost simmer and bubble as it sat on the grill. He always made two pans, one regular and one hot. He liked it hot. He didn’t have any teeth and chewed tobacco. I don’t think that affected his taste buds though. Once he ate breakfast with us and drank the tomato juice out of the serving plate. I watched him in wonder as he slurped the juice, set the plate down and lick his lips. He sat there a moment enjoying his draught. Then he said,”There was a bad tomato in there.”  Anyone with taste buds that sharp wouldn’t have been inhibited by tobacco juice. Anyway, Uncle Johnny liked his barbecue hot. He liked everything hot. He made gravy so hot one time that the cats wouldn’t eat it. As a kid, my mom would warn me about the hot pan of barbecue. “It’s hot baby, you won’t like it.” I grew up thinking that the hot pan of barbecue was going to burn through my esophagus. When I was finally old enough to fix my own plate, I tried some. It was delicious.

I’ve rambled a little bit here. We were defining Barbecue and I’ve already offended all the Texans and Carolinians. It’s probably just easier to tell you what barbecue ain’t, and that’s hamburger and hot dogs. You’re supposed to fry hamburgers in an iron skillet and roast weenies in the fall around a fire. If you get invited to a barbecue and they’re cooking hamburgers and hot dogs, I’m sorry, but those people have misled you. I’m sure they’re nice people and all, but I wouldn’t let them watch my kids if I were you, next thing you know they’ll have them playing soccer or something crazy like that. 

A Barbecue (see how I capitalized it) is also defined as a sacred feast for Southerners, where pork is cooked on a wood fired grill outside. This feast usually lasts about three days.

In general, we had about four or five Barbecues a year. We did have the official family reunion at my Great Uncle Freddie’s on the river, and sometimes we barbecued there. But all the same people came to the barbecues at my Aunt Edna’s, just up the hill from Pop’s, on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. And whenever Pop deemed it was angood time to have a Barbecue.  Since the location, menu, and people were the same each time, the only way that I could tell a difference in all of those holidays was that we shot bottle rockets on the Fourth of July. To me, these summer holidays were simply Barbecues.

The Barbecue would start on Friday night. “We’ll serve dinner on Sunday at noon.” Pop would say. Up until then, we feasted. We might have a fish fry while the barbecue was slow cooking. Somebody might through some Cornish game hens on the grill and eat them while we were waiting on the main course. One time my Uncle James put a Boston Butt on the grill and then left. He come back about six or five hours later and his meat was about half gone. He singled Uncle Johnny out, “You done eat all my barbecue Johnny.”

“I can’t eat t’at James, I ain’t got no teeth!” Uncle Johnny retorted.

“Yeah, but you kin bite a railroad rail in two with them gums of yores.”

Barbecuing a whole hog is a lot of work, but man is it worth it. There is nothing like slicing the meat off of a hog and eating it around the grill. All it needs is a little bit of salt.

This is the grill that Pop & Uncle Johnny used throughout my childhood. You can see the front peice is on the ground. You can cook whole hogs or just use the grill to cook Boston Butts and ribs. 

When Sunday finally rolled around, we would eat, not just barbecue, but we had a buffet of sides that was five tables long under Aunt Edna’s carport. It was also about fifty yards from the grill. I’m not writing about sides though, I’m writing about barbecue.

When I close my eyes and work up a hankering for barbecue, I still see my family sitting outside around a humongous oak tree. Many of them have passed on now.  I envision myself as a little boy with thick glasses walking to the grill down by the tree line. They were pine trees. Uncle Johnny pulls the front of the grill open to throw a couple of pieces of hickory wood on the fire. Sparks fly everywhere. I walk in front of all the old men sitting around the grill and ask Uncle Johnny to dip me out some of barbecue on my bun. “No sir, I’ll have the regular.” I say. I take a bite of that barbecue sandwich, and blink to get the smoke out of my eyes. That’s really how I define Barbecue.

That giant oak tree finally died and they had to cut it down before it fell on Aunt Edna’s house. I’m sure they used some of that wood for a barbecue. Uncle Johnny showed my brother how to barbecue a coon’s age ago. He wanted to pass it on to the next generation. Although Zach learned on the other grill, I feel like he mastered this one. I’m going to get one of these someday. 

Since I’ve moved to Virginia, I haven’t been to a proper Barbecue in over a decade. Perhaps that’s why I’ve expanded my definition of barbecue to include Brisket, chicken, and dry rub. I even like that old nasty vinegar stuff they try to pass as barbecue down in the Carolinas. No matter what barbecue I try, nothing is quite the same as those summer Barbecues of my childhood in the blazing Alabama heat. It’s hard to capture that whole experience in a restaurant. 

It seems like every year when the weather changes I get invited to someone’s place for a barbecue. I’ve learned to be polite and go, but I know it’s going to be hamburgers and hot dogs.