Cork, made from the bark of cork oaks (also known as cork trees) figured prominently in the vocabulary of many Southern speakers because it is used in so many ways. Found in many parts of the world, these trees have been farmed for centuries on the arid plains of southern Spain and Portugal and in Italy. If the bark is properly stripped away, the trees survive and in time grow replacement covering. Cork is light, waterproof, easy to shape, termite proof and slow to decay.
The most familiar use of cork and of the use of its name is in connection with “corking” a bottle or other necked container. It has been employed for centuries to seal bottles of wine and other spirits. Common stereotypical depictions of rural Southerners include a jug, glazed pottery vessel (demijohn), of moonshine whiskey with a cork in the neck. Someone might be portrayed as saying that it is time to “pull a cork.” In fact, such vessels are heavy and prone to impart an earthy taste to contents unless they were properly glazed inside. Thus, glass jars, typically half-gallon, soon became the normal containers for moonshine.
There were many more uses for cork seals, called “stoppers” or cork stoppers. While syrup was commonly stored in special gallon-sized cans, quart bottles were also used and closed with corks. Filling bottles with hot syrup from the boiler took more time and effort, but these could become serving vessels at the table, requiring no transition from can to serving pitcher. Liquids could be borrowed or given using bottles or demijohns closed with cork stoppers.
Corks were used as stoppers for fishermen’s bait gourds. A dried, round gourd, about quart-sized, became a handy container for fish bait. The stem (neck) was cut off an inch or so from the body of the gourd and all seeds and fiber removed. Several small holes were opened to provide air flow. A sturdy cord was attached in a loop so that the bait gourd could be carried around the neck or shoulder. A cork stopper closed the top opening and usually was attached with a short piece of twine to prevent its being dropped or even lost. This container was used for all sorts of live baits: crawfish, July flies (katydids) grasshoppers, native crickets or store-bought crickets. Unlike the screen-wire, metal and plastic cages that replaced them, they cost almost nothing, and if cork couldn’t be found for a stopper, a section of corn cob would do.
Some fishermen/women chose to let their baits sink to the bottom of the stream. Those who preferred to use floats to present live lures at a selected depth used corks. These were split halfway through lengthwise to insert the fishing lines. A short piece of line wrapped around the cork prevented it from sliding off the fishing line. These were called “corks,” because “bobber” was rarely used until the advent of store-bought plastic floats. The most knowledgeable old time fishers would sometimes use a section of corn stalk instead of cork depending upon the type of fish being sought.
There are other applications of cork in fishing. Much larger than corks on fishing lines were the floats attached to the tops of seines, long nets moved by hand to capture fish in streams and on beaches. Similar floats are attached by lines to blue crab traps. Impervious to water, they do not sink and they stand up to rough handling.
The cork growers of Iberia are facing serious economic challenges. Most wine makers and liquor distillers are switching to other stoppers for their products. Most frequently seen are aluminum screw-off caps and a rubber-like plug that is similar to cork. Only a few traditional and “upper-end” wine makers and distillers still use cork.
Economic necessity might lead to the destruction of thousands of cork trees, some more than 200 years old. That would lead to much wider consequences because they thrive in dry places, cooling the air and preserving moisture. They are highly beneficial in the earth’s carbon-oxygen exchange process.
The use of cork is even fading regular vocabulary. Who “pulls a cork” these days? One occasionally heard sentence comes to mind. “Put a cork in it” means stop talking — “Shut up!” It is a word stopper.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.