The “back then” generation of youngsters certainly enjoyed the special treats of summer from watermelons to homemade ice cream. However, long days of hard work, hot houses and hotter fields took a lot of the “good” from “the good old summer time.” Except for the stiff new clothes and shoes that marked the start of a new school year, autumn was generally a happier time. Even classrooms came to be more attractive than cotton patches.
It is difficult for present-day people to understand that in an economy with limited cash and even less credit, tasty treats came from nature, from field, orchard or forest. Few people had enough money to become obese from consuming too much candy or other foods loaded with refined sugar. Autumn brought seasonal delights.
Fields and orchards yielded varied and abundant nuts: peanuts, pecans and walnuts. Peanuts were grown both as a cash crop and for hogs to root up and eat in the field to fatten up for market. At early maturity — late August or September — they became human food as a treat, boiled peanuts. There were parties focused on peanut consumption, but often involving games or maybe some romantic encounters. When mature nuts were dried, they became a different food, tasty eaten raw, but much better if roasted or added to a syrup-based candy (peanut brittle).
In late October and November, pecan trees yielded their treasures. Timing of nut-fall varied with variety with some seedlings hanging in the tree until Christmas. A few landowners had orchards large enough to produce a significant cash crop. Others hoped to gather enough to pay their ad valorem taxes at the end of the year, but most just had a few trees to provide nuts for family consumption.
There are many delightful ways to use pecans in cooking. There are numerous recipes for pecan pie, none of them bad. They are added in various ways to cakes, cookies and candies. Perfect divinity candy topped with half of a pecan is even more heavenly than fudge with pecan chunks added. They are good simply roasted. However, many oldsters remember best their childhood experience of gathering freshly fallen pecans, then cracking them, picking out the “meat” and eating them on the spot.
Walnuts were different. No one grabbed a couple of them and cracked them in the hand. They were the native black walnuts with a hard, thick shell, black on the outside and nearly impenetrable. The fruit of the nut was limited in volume but tasty, the very essence of walnut flavor.
Extraction required a hard base (brick or metal) and a hammer or similar tool. A walnut was placed on the base and struck firmly but very carefully so as to avoid destruction of the nut fruit or of fingers holding the nut in place. Even when opened, walnuts resisted surrender of their contents, which were nested in convoluted nooks and crannies. Instruments were needed to extract the precious nut. That which worked best was the loop of a hairpin or bobby pin borrowed or purloined from some adult female relative. Needless to say, walnuts were not widely used in cooking.
Autumn was the time when sugar cane became ready for harvest, just after the first good frost but before a damaging freeze. Of course, the primary use for sugar cane was to reduce its sugary juice into syrup by boiling, although a few people processed it further into sugar (brown, not refined). However, it was not for nothing that the event was referred to as “cane grinding.” Crushing cane between heavy metal drums in a mule-powered mill yielded an abundant flow of juice, which was enthusiastically consumed by young and old alike.
This was a treat that was readily obtained and copious in volume. Kids could drink all they wanted unless some adult thought that “too much might make you sick.” However, they were admonished to approach quietly and carefully lest they scare the mule.
Enjoyment of sugar cane was not limited to cane grinding days. There was also chewing cane. The interior of a stalk of cane is a malleable fiber filled with juice, mostly sugar and water. The outside is a hard peeling colored red, green or striped depending on variety of cane. The stalk is jointed and there is a hard separation between joints. The sweet juice can be enjoyed by stripping off the peeling with a knife, cutting the fiber into bite-size rolls and crushing out the juice by chewing. This treat was available from the time the cane matured in the cane patch until it was harvested.
The prospect of chewing cane probably does not appeal to most contemporary youngsters, but I would happily do it again if my aged teeth were up to the task.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.