Make plans now to attend Mule Day! Mule Day is held the first Saturday in November in Calvary, Georgia, a tiny town north of Tallahassee, just across the Florida state line, between Havana and Cairo. My fear-of-flying self thinks -- Georgia also has a Rome! Why would anyone need to leave the country? Or the South, even?
I've been to a lot of these events. Mule, possum, goat, squirrel, mullet. No creature is too humble to warrant a day or a festival, and that's surprising when you consider the venues are generally alcohol free.
At every festival there are food booths offering meats on sticks, kettle corn and funnel cakes; and craft vendors that feature paintings on saw blades, mason jar candles and marionette birds made of Styrofoam balls and acrylic fur. In the hands of children, the strings are instantly, irretrievably tangled and just about every child exiting the grounds is crying from an overstuffed belly or a ruined puppet or both.
As entertaining as that is (if you aren't in possession of a meltdown child), at Mule Day the star of the show is the mule; at Mule Day no one eats the animal of honor! There's a parade and a mule show with prizes for the "Best Jackass Halter" and "Best Costume Mule," among others. There's also a cane grinding exhibit that takes me back to my childhood.
On Saturday mornings during the cane harvest, my brother Ben, my cousin Laurianne and I would walk up to the farmer's co-op and watch the mule that worked the sugar cane mill. He plodded a well-rutted circle, grinding the cane into juice so that it could be boiled into syrup.
The mule powered mill was an antique, having been replaced by a more modern machine long before I was born, but the farmers always set some cane aside for the mule to juice, for nostalgia's sake, I guess.
Mule Grinding Cane (Photo courtesy of FPC
The farmers were, to a man, battered and burnt brown. The elders wore Stetsons and overalls, a tobacco plug in the bib, and the younger ones wore t-shirts and jeans and had cigarette packs rolled up in their sleeves or a snuff tin in their back pockets. They hobbled on cow-kicked knees, and gestured with butchered hands as they talked, throwing unintentional gang signs. Every farmer I knew was missing at least one finger. Most were missing several, their hands a study in ratios: a quarter nub, a half nub, a third. Before the word safety entered the workforce, or appeared as a generalized worry for mothers everywhere, cotton gins, pea shellers, tillers, tractors and other farming equipment came without guards or cut-off switches.
I had three grandpas, all with mangled hands and limbs. My maternal grandpa's right hand formed a permanent "rock on!" gesture; my second maternal grandpa was missing an entire right arm. My paternal grandpa had so many partial fingers that his hands looked like two bar graphs, and he later lost a leg to cancer. When that happened, I was young enough to be afraid of finding it, that lost leg, under a couch cushion or in one of the bins in his country store. It seemed an unlikely thing to lose.
With the evidence of carelessness all around us, my mother's warnings to stay away from the grinder and the mule – "Fingers look a lot like carrots," she'd say – were unnecessary.
From the co-op farmers, I learned that a mule is cross between a donkey and a horse. I pictured a donkey and a horse with a crucifix separating them and couldn't figure out how that made a mule. (That kind of ignorance might explain the baby I had at nineteen.) One of the farmers would always give us a piece of raw cane to chew on. This was supposed to be a treat and I gnawed with polite enthusiasm. No one could entice me to drink the raw cane juice. It looked like snot. But I was genuinely enthusiastic about the final product: dark amber cane syrup. There was a jug of cane syrup on the table at every meal. We mixed it with sour cream to make a biscuit sop Granny called "salve," which sounds strange until you consider the current craze for yogurt and honey.
Cane syrup has become difficult to find outside the South. Down here there are still a good number of small batch syrupmakers (many of them using the same equipment their great grandparents used) and I buy it in large jars at our local produce market. I gather the only national distributor is Steen's
out of Louisiana, and you can order from their website. Or you could come to Mule Day and pick up a jug of syrup as a souvenir. Just don't get near the cane grinder, and don't try to pet the mule. Fingers really do look a lot like carrots.
Mule Day Pie
Traditional pecan pies, those made with corn syrup, are far too sweet for my taste. The meaty allure of the pecans is lost as it competes with a bottom layer of cloying goop. This recipe allows the pecans and the unique flavor of the cane syrup to shine through. (I ate that missing piece for breakfast.)
1 9-inch deep dish pie crust. I usually make my own, but you can definitely use a frozen crust. My very tired and overworked grandmothers did!
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
½ cup pure cane syrup
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup melted butter, slightly cooled
2 Tbsp cream
2 Tbsp all purpose flour
1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until they are pale yellow. Whisk in the brown sugar, the cane syrup and vanilla. While whisking, slowly drizzle in the melted butter and then the cream. Sprinkle in the flour and whisk until smooth. Stir in the chopped pecans. Pour into the unbaked pie shell.
Bake at 400 for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 and bake for an additional 45-55 minutes, or until the pie filling doesn't "sloppy jiggle" when you gently jostle the pie pan. It will start to set at the outer edges first and the middle will still sloppy jiggle. At that point watch it closely. It's better to overbake it a little than to underbake it, but it's best when you catch it right at the point when the middle firms to match the edges in terms of jiggle.
Let the pie cool completely before cutting. This step is a huge problem for Mr. Vance. I have to hover nearby and shoo him off until it's ready to cut.
(When I look into the strategically blank eyes of a mule, I think she must have some bizarre and exciting inner life, and this video popped into my head. Watching it for the first time in a decade, I thought, "This is EXACTLY what I hope the mule is seeing when she grinds cane!")