American History & Genealogy Project
Days Gone By
On the farm, our house was heated by two fire places at either end of the house and a wood burning stove. In the fall, when it was cold enough to keep a fire burning in the fireplace all day, my mother would make hominy. She very carefully selected ashes from the fireplace which had been made by burning seasoned oak logs. She put about 1/2 cup of ashes in a muslin cloth square and tied this into a bag with cord. (The choice of ashes was critical because other woods would produce ashes with undesirable tastes like pine tar.)
In a 2 gallon three legged iron pot she put this bag and 1 and 1/2 gallons of shelled yellow boat corn which she had washed several times in clear water. The corn and ashes bag was covered with water and the pot placed at one edge of the fireplace on a bed of embers.
There the corn boiled slowly for several hours. It should be stirred occasionally and the water level kept up with addition of water as needed. As the corn cooked, it became soft and the outer husk slipped off of the grains and rose to the top of the water. Skim these husks off from time to time. When all the husks have come off, pour off the water and husks, and rinse the hominy several times until the water runs clear. Drain and store in a stoneware crock in a cool place -- we had a "safe"--a large hutch with screen on the doors where we placed crocks of fresh milk, and other cooked foods. I think the hominy would have kept for a week or so but we ate it before it had time to spoil!
To prepare to eat, in a large skillet cook several slices of bacon crisp and remove bacon from the skillet. Put the desired amount of hominy in the skillet and fry in the bacon grease until it is very hot. Serve at once. Taste the hominy and salt if necessary--however, the bacon grease will be salty and will season the hominy.
Boat corn was the variety of corn that my father grew in the garden to be used for the family table. It had larger kernels than the field corn grown for animal feed and ground for cornmeal and grits. Each stalk of boat corn produced fewer ears of corn and was less hardy that field corn. I was told the name "boat corn" was given because originally the corn had been brought down the river by flatboats. Anyway, it was called "boat corn" in seed catalogs so this was not just a family name for it. In the late summer when the corn had matured, my mother carefully gathered the dry corn and shelled it. Some she set aside for seed corn for the next year; the rest she saved to make hominy in the winter. All the boat corn I ever saw was yellow but there might have been white varieties. Hominy could also be made from field corn but it took a bit longer to cook and the grains were smaller.
As children, we liked the hominy cold out of the crock and would often steal in and grab a handful out of the crock when my mother was not around. A handful of hominy and a cold baked sweet potato made a wonderful after school snack--if there were green onions still in the garden we would add them to the snack and then the world was just about perfect!
Contributed by Kate Mullins
In the very early days around 1800, many of the settlers in the Franklin County area lived as pioneers, eating wild game and what vegetables they could grow. Corn meal was the basic bread and wild honey, whenever it could found, was the basic sweetening. At that time, wheat flour as well as sugar was imported from the islands and was very expensive. Watermelons, which had been brought by slaves from Africa, were grown. Some of the families made Watermelon Syrup to use as a sweetener.
A medium sized watermelon will produce about 5 quarts of juice when the ripe part is mashed and strained. To make syrup, place this juice in a heavy pot and simmer it to reduce the water content. After about 2-3 hours, the residue will be a pint or two of very sweet, very red syrup with an essence of watermelon taste. In the last hour or so of simmering, the juice should be watched carefully as sugar concentrates can scorch easily and ruin the taste of the syrup. The syrup remains thin like sugar water rather than thick like cane syrup.
The amount of juice and the sweetness of the syrup depends to some extent on the kind of watermelon and its degree of ripeness.
I have made this syrup several times and it is wonderful on breakfast pancakes! I can imagine that our ancestors would make hoe cakes from cornbread and put this syrup over them. I never tried to bake with this syrup but I suppose one could make sweet cookies of some sort with it. I would also think that if some pectin (used to make jellies set firm) were added you could make great watermelon jelly without cane sugar.
For cooks who give "treats" for gifts, a pint of this syrup would be a very delightful and different present.
Contributed by Kate Mullins
PEANUTS--RAW, BOILED, PARCHED, ROASTED
Along with okra and watermelons, slaves from Africa brought to the US the peanut plant. A legume, the plant's fruit is produced on the roots underground where the tip of the roots expand into a pod containing one, two or three peanuts. Peanuts are an excellent food source, grow well in the South and have become a regional staple. The plants are planted in rows and in the early fall are ready to harvest. When I was a child the time of harvest provided a great treat--we had boiled peanuts--which I have found is an acquired taste mostly limited to Southerners.
On the farm, when the peanuts were mature, the plants were pulled up, roots and all. (It was a lot easier to pull them right after a hard rain and the ground was wet). The peanuts inside the shell were encased by a pithy white sac. They were considered "green" until that pith dried and the peanut would rattle in the shell. After pulling up the plant, we would make a stack, like a hay shock, with a pole nailed to 4 sticks to hold it upright. The peanut plants were stacked, root end against the pole until the stack was about 6 feet high. The leafy tops of the plants provided protection from rain and the peanuts could dry. They were then picked from the plants and stored in sacks or large drums to be safe from mice.
During the harvest period, while the peanuts were mature but still green, the peanuts can be boiled in salty water for about 30 or 40 minutes at a slow boil. The cooked peanuts, removed from the shell, have a mealy texture somewhat like cooked pinto beans. After cooking the peanuts should be used or refrigerated as they will sour and ferment if left at room temperature for several days. When I was a child, this was a very seasonal treat; now raw green peanuts can be stored for a year or more in a freezer and cooked as needed.
Once the pith around the peanut dries, the nut is cooked with dry heat. As a child we spoke of "parching" peanuts; now I notice this same activity is called "roasting peanuts". Peanuts are placed in a shallow pan one layer thick in the oven at medium temperature. They should be stirred often to make them cook evenly and removed from the oven as soon as the husk on the peanut slips off when the shell is removed. Over cooked peanuts can taste bitter.
As a child, I recall having lots of peanuts and the whole family was pressed into service to shell enough peanuts to make peanut butter. The nuts were parched, shelled and rolled to make the husk come off. Then the nuts were ground with the fine blade of our food chopper making a creamy paste. This was seasoned with salt to taste and stored in a crockery pot. After sitting, the peanut oil would come to the top and had to be stirred back into the peanut butter to keep it smooth. (Now the pasteurization process in commercially prepared peanut butter takes care of this.)
While living in India I learned that dry raw peanuts could be used to make boiled peanuts. The nuts just have to be boiled about two hours at a very low simmer in salty water and they take on the texture of the green boiled nuts.
Peanuts, like most food products, have several varieties. On our farm we grew what is called the Spanish peanut, a small nut but very rich in oil. We also grew a few peanuts which were very large and which we used entirely for boiling. At the moment I can't recall what the variety was called--if I every did know.
Contributed by Kate Mullins
During the very early settlements in Franklin County prior to 1800, the families lived like pioneers, having log cabins, and living very much on what the land could produce. Farmers grew indigo and tobacco as cash crops; herded cattle and hogs both for subsistence and to barter for needed supplies. Prior to 1800, both wheat flour and sugar were imported and extremely expensive. For everyday foods, the settlers used honey or watermelon syrup for sweets and corn meal for bread making.
Few of the very early settlers had slaves; and those that did usually had only one or two. The slaves had brought with them some of the plants from Africa that thrived in hot and humid weather such as okra, various kinds of gourds, and the cereal cane plant Sorghum, especially the sweet kind sometimes called Sorgo. This cereal plant had been cultivated in Africa and Asia for centuries and used as food for animals. It grew rapidly in humid hot climates, was disease and bug resistant and could be grown in almost any kind of soil. When juice from the sweet variety was pressed out, it could be reduced by heating to make the water evaporate. The juice would boil down into a heavy, dark syrup, with a sweet but strong taste. Sorghum syrup became a staple in the diet of slaves (and often poor whites as well), often eaten with corn bread or rice. Today it is included in foods that are often referred to as “soul food” or southern cookery. Today, the United States is the second largest producer of sorghum in the world and it is used primarily as food for livestock and the syrup is used in the commercial production of some foods.
Sorghum Cane, or at least the Sorgo variety that is used for table syrup, grows in clumps, as do most reed like plants, with stalks growing to 7 or 8 feet in height, topped off with a heavy grain seed bushy head. Each stalk is about the size of a thumb, with joints about every 7 or 8 inches. Each stalk grew out a site of leaves, long slender shoots that grew almost as tall as the cane stalks. When the cane is ready to harvest, the long slender leaves dry, wither and turn brown. Long machete like knives are used to hack away these leaves and to cut the stalk of cane off from the plant very near the ground. Cane plants of all sorts prefer rich sandy soil with plenty of water but sorghum would grow almost anywhere and is rarely attacked by bugs. Sugar cane grew and was harvested just like sorghum. However the cane was quite a bit thicker than Sorghum—often being 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter, and the joints were only 3 or 4 inches long and the whole stalk would be less than 6 ft tall while Sorghum was a bit taller.
Sorghum patches (in Franklin Co in the 1930’s people called their cane fields ‘patches’ – I guess to signify that this was a crop for home use and not a money making item—like cotton fields but peanut patches) could be left after harvest, the sides of the rows plowed and fertilized for another crop. It there was not a heavy freeze that froze the roots, the cane roots would produce a crop the next year. I don’t recall how often the cane fields had to be re-seeded with new plants but I do know that plants that are hybrids will, over time, revert back to the common plant that the hybrid was matched with so the quality of the plant changes over time. Also, cane plants, like potted plants, can become “root-bound” so that too much of the nutrients brought into the plant go into the large root system and the upper part of the plant is stunted in growth. To re-seed a field, the rows would be plowed and cleared of old growth, usually by setting the field afire. Then the top of the row would be opened up and seed stalks would be laid down in the opening in the top of the row. At each joint in the stalk a new growth bud would grow and take root.
As a matter of fact, I don’t think that my father ever grew Sorghum on our farm. He always said that anything that a hog wouldn’t eat probably wasn’t worth growing. Hogs didn’t care too much for the strong taste of the sorghum skimmings –and they wouldn’t eat quinces either—so we never had sorghum cane or quince trees on our farm. I never liked sorghum either so that was no loss but I adored the taste of sour quinces with salt. My grandfather had a tree located just out of the sight of the house. We kids would sneak the salt shaker out of the kitchen and go down to that tree and eat green quinces. At least once a year, and sometimes more, we would all have a bout of what locally was called “Quince Belly” and in addition to being sick, we would get punished as well for eating the green quinces --it was all worth it but that’s another story!
I do recall that when my father was lining up the local neighbors who were hauling in their cane, he always insisted that all the Louisiana sugar cane be processed and the sorghum would be the last cooked off the pan because it would give the pan a “strong” taste. After the sorghum was cooked off the syrup making season was over and the pan was scrubbed and oiled to keep it from rusting. It was turned upside down and stored over the rafters of the shed that was built over the space where the pan was used for cooking.
Unlike sorghum, sugar cane with is also a member of the cereal grass family, is a plant native to the new world. It was grown and used for making sugar in Brazil in the 1500’s; the Spanish and the British brought the cane to the West Indies and by the late 1600’s it was a major cash crop in the West Indies. While we learned a lot about the Tea Tax that the British imposed on the Colonies, the Sugar and Molasses Tax which the British also imposed on the colonies had a much more dire effect on the economy of the colonies, especially the New England States. The cane, grown in the West Indies, was crushed and cooked to reduce the liquid and make rock or unrefined sugar. In the process of making sugar, the cooked juice was placed in vats or barrels and cooled. The sugar turned into crystallized hunks, like rock candy or unrefined sugar. This left a liquid that did not harden in the barrels. This liquid was drained off and bottled and was called molasses. The West Indies shipped both sugar and molasses to New England; there the colonists used the sugar for food and turned the molasses into barrels and barrels of rum which they shipped back to the Indies as well as Europe.
When the French and the Spanish ships came into the New England harbors to sell their wares of sugar and molasses, the colonists had to pay a very stiff tariff to the British so it made trade with other than the British suppliers almost too costly to consider. As a matter of fact, the tariffs imposed by Great Briton to protect the British farm owners in the Indies set a pattern of stiff tariff protection laws that continue as part of our basis of quarrelling with Cuba today. The production of sugar as a cash crop in Louisiana was begun under the French and Spanish but did not grow into a modern industry for some time after the Revolutionary War.
There is no record of sugar cane or sorghum being grown in Franklin County as a cash crop. Tobacco and Indigo could both be produced and sold without major investments in processing mills but sugar production required hot humid weather and a financial investment in large processing plants. The weather, even just this far north was not the best for growing sugar cane and the volume of production was not sufficient to warrant an investment in such an enterprise. However, these canes were grown in the county for home use in syrup well before the Civil War. In the 1930’s, the sugar cane we had was referred to as “Louisiana Sugar Cane” because the type in use at that time was a hybrid taken from the sugar cane fields of Louisiana where production of refined sugar was big business. The common reference to syrup made from this cane was “Louisiana Syrup or Louisiana Molasses”. As an aside, Franklin County residents in the 1930’s all scraped along as best they could during the depression years. None were really rich and I don’t recall anyone starving to death but as with humans the world over there were subtle distinctions of ranking or class that were acted out in various ways—none more so than the preparation and kinds of foods eaten. I can still hear my mother saying that “Sorghum and Buffalo fish would do to eat only if you couldn’t do better!”
By 1930’s, most farmers had a patch of sugar cane and some also had sorghum patches for production of home use syrup. Technically, syrup refers to the product made by reducing the cane juice to a heavy syrup; molasses refers to the liquid drained off the crystallized sugar as a residue of the sugar making process. But in Franklin County these two words were used interchangeably by most people and everybody ate syrup/molasses almost every day. Some of the farmers owned cane mills and the rest contracted with these farmers to make their syrup for a percentage of the produce.
My father was one of those that owned a mill; the first one I remember was a small piece of machinery that would fit in the bed of a wagon; it was powered by a mule that walked in a circle around the machine, forcing the cogs to grind or press the juice out of the cane, which was fed into the machine by hand. The mule driven machines were moved to the cane field and the syrup made there. Cane fields were usually located in low lying sites with sandy soil located close to a creek or stream. The juice, when pressed out of the cane was a deep green—looked a lot like stagnant water with algae growing on it—but it was deliciously sweet to the taste!
In addition to a cane mill, the production of syrup required a barrel to catch the juice in, and a pipe to move the juice to a heated pan for cooking the juice to the required texture, and containers to store the prepared syrup. The syrup pan was designed to allow maximum evaporation of water while cooking and sufficient space to use a strainer to skim off the impurities which rose to the top of the juice as it was cooking. The pan, made of steel, was about 4 feet wide and about 10 feet long, no more than six or eight inches deep, and had barriers in the pan which looked like a maze, placed every eight inches or so apart across the 4 foot width of the pan. Openings in the barriers were placed at various places across the pan so the juice would move in a snake-like creep around the barriers to reach the other end of the pan. This pan was placed on top of a brick or mud support that raised the pan to mid thigh level. The brick walls on either side supported the pan and in the middle a wood fire was kept going to heat the pan. At one end of the pan, fresh juice would be allowed to flow into the pan at a slow rate. At this point under the pan the fire was the hottest. As the syrup got thicker and moved slowly through the maze to the other end of the pan, the heat was lowered to keep the sugar from scorching. When the syrup was ready, it was drained off at the end of the pan and placed in gallon tin buckets with a tight fitting lid and a small wire handle used to lift the bucket.
The cook and his assistants watched the syrup closely; scorching would ruin the whole batch. Skimmers were long handled tools with a six by six inches or so frame on the end that held a heavy screen wire mesh. This skimmer was slid across the top of the juice to catch any pieces of cane or other impurities that might have gotten into the juice. The juice, as it cooked, had a head of green foam and this foam which included all impurities, was skimmed off and discarded. The mill would have a sluice, or a drain-off ditch which would take this discarded waste away from the immediate place of the mill. This sugary substance when heated by the sun would ferment and the sluice always smelled like a brewery. In fact, persons in the neighborhood who were known to make homebrew often came to get this sluice—usually they said they were feeding it to their hogs—but sometime later they often brought my father a sample of their produce—and it was not bacon!
The sugar cane after the juice had been pressed out was called bagasse (there are several spellings of this word-it is a French word adapted from the original Spanish) and was used as land fill in gullies and a fertilizer. We always called these “chews” – I was not old enough to remember playing on the chews when we had the mule-powered mill. By the time I was ready for school; my father had purchased a tractor to use in the fields and as a motor to drive a large cane mill and also a hammer grist mill. Both of these mills were quite large so it was necessary to establish a permanent yard for the cane mill and farmers from around the area would haul their cane to the mill. The mill yard was situated on a high rise across from our home. One side of the hill dropped off into a deep ravine caused by soil erosion. The gully was at least two stories deep and there were pine saplings growing on the hill side.
The gallon buckets, made of tin, with vacuum type sealing lids and a thin wire handle to carry them were purchased in wholesale lots. They came, 50 to a box, packed in large corrugated cardboard boxes about the size of a loveseat. After the buckets were used, we would take the cardboard boxes, open them flat, rolled up one end as front guard, and made wonderful sleds to slide down the two story mountain of chews. After the chews fermented a little and were packed down, they made a very slick surface and after a trip or two down the hill, the cardboard would get just as slick. Officially we were forbidden to ride the chews but –! I know no one was killed-but I do recall a lot of banged up limbs and occasionally a head when the rider couldn’t “steer” the cardboard sled between the pine saplings and hit one head on!
On the old mule driven mill, they would cook off about 60 or 70 gallons of syrup in a full day of operation. But with the new mill, the volume that could be handled was up to 300 gallons or more a day. The sugar cane syrup would be much lighter and clearer in color than the sorghum. The color would be a light yellowish brown a little darker than honey, like dark amber, and clear so you could see your biscuit under the layer of syrup. It had a very sweet, but delicate taste without the harshness of Sorghum. Now, of course, sugar production is a very technical process but the essential difference in cooking syrup and making sugar is that the syrup is removed from the fire just before the chemical process which shapes the juices into crystal rock candy took place. During WWII, my father cooked down syrup into the next stage and made crystal rock candy; the hot syrup was put in a barrel to cool and the crystals to set. Then a hole was punched into the bottom of the barrel to let the liquid residue (technically the molasses) drain off. We then ran the rock candy through a food processor to chop it into coarse raw sugar granules. Mostly we used this to sweeten ice tea and coffee but my mother did occasionally use it for baking. I believe she let the sugar dissolve in the liquid that she was using in the baking so that the granules would not ‘crunch’ when you ate the sweet cake.
This activity I am describing took place during the 1930’s and no one had any money to speak of. The farmers who used my father’s cane mill, paid for the service with a percentage of their syrup. As I recall, the fee was every tenth gallon but I am not completely sure about this or that this price held over all the time the mill was used. I do recall that one year my father used the syrup he made at the mill to pay Mr. Hartman for his burial policy fee for the year. I don’t know how many gallons it took but we took it out to Brookhaven in the trunk of the car so I guess it wasn’t too much.
All of this activity ceased at our farm with the coming of the WWII. There was no one to work the farms; no labor to help with the molasses making and people had begun to use foods processed and sold in the grocery stores. I did know of some molasses being made in the county as late as the 1970’s but it was not a common practice for most of the people living in the County as it had been in the 1930’s.
Contributed & copyright March, 2003 by Kate Mullins
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