Bellwether Vance

Hounds to the Left of me/Jokers to the Right

Bellwether Vance

Bellwether Vance
December 31
You'd like me. People like me.


Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 30, 2011 8:40AM

Mule Day Pie

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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The mule powered mill was an antique, having been replaced by a more modern machine long before I was born, but the farmers always set some cane aside for the mule to juice, for nostalgia's sake, I guess.
cane mule2 
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
mule day pie2 

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!")

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Mule On A Stick. And to think that I once loved our 'regional differences'. :) rated!
This post was a little weird with all the macabre maimings but that is what we love about the south, isn't it? Weirdness and pecan pie.
Wonderful post as usual. That piece of pie for breakfast looks pretty hefty. A tribute to it's taste, no doubt. And your foodie enthusiasm comes through in your writing like that big hunk of pie.
Mules are just plain smarter than horses, I think. It's that they resist when in disagreement. Pecan pie is gorgeous!
Thanks for the food lore. Makes the pie all the more inviting.
Another fabulous post! You don't blog very often, but when you do it is always a gem. Farming is so dangerous even with all the safety precautions.
The pie looks delicious! Yum~
What a rich spectrum you've painted with! And ending with pecan pie . . . I'm not a sweets person, and always go for the savory, but pecan pie is my hands-down favorite. Your recipe intrigues me . . . but then, so does mule day.

@Linnnn - My Grandad always said mules were smarter than horses. His evidence was that a mule will not allow itself to be worked to death, unlike a horse . . . .
Forget Paula Deen we have you..
I like pie.. I like gluten free pie now hahaha
This reminds me of the movie Waitress
Hey, editor, wake up! This needs to be an EP, for many reasons, but especially the brilliant punchline "fingers look a lot like carrots." I'm not a fan of pecan pie; the corn syrup goop makes me gag, but this cane syrup version sounds absolutely wonderful. Thanks for making my day, Bell!
R for writing it in such a way I wanted to visit, despite all common sense. I remember trying a little nibble of cane sugar as a kid, and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Another gem. I love your mother's witty sayings. "You're too young to have a back." "Fingers look a lot like carrots." Keep 'em coming. They'd make a great book.
Yes, I too am waiting for the book. That!
We go into the southern states once a year. Now I 'll be prowling the grocery stores to find some cane syrup. I love the kinds of events you described. There are a few diffences (no mules or much maimed farmers) but the basics are the same.
HoooHoooo! Newbie Editor! EP here! Big blow up of the mule, on the cover!

Bell, that's a nice looking pie. I loved the ghoulish finger and limb injuries juxtaposed with tasty pie. That's why we rush to read your posts.
I like Sorghum Day, and Miss Sorghum.
Hah! EP! Glad to see the word reached new editress. Or perhaps she saw the adorable little girl in the white dress looking all innocent, was drawn in by cuteness, unaware she would soon be reading about chawed off fingers.
"at Mule Day no one eats the animal of honor!"

So this means that on Squirrel Day the food vendors do serve up ...?
Love it! Can't wait to try the pie recipe; there is a bottle of cane syrup in our pantry from our last trip to LA.
I want a Bellwether Vance book, damn it.
Great Post. We have a Muledays not far from here, in Benson, N.C. It lasts 3 days and people come from all over. I went as a kid (is 25 a kid?) and my brother-in-law takes his mule and wagon and his Amish hat (he also has an Amish beard, dummy) and rides the kids around every year. I may do a post when they have the next one. I have a picture of the mule around here somewhere!
My Great Grandpa was called One Eyed Smokey. He'd lost his eye in a decidedly one way 'altercation' betwixt him and the local Sheriff in the Monette, Arkansas area. I'd only ever remembered him as an old too soon man in a wheelchair, his body tipped horribly to the right. Along with his moonshine days, he used to plow and harvest about 200 acres of prime cotton. He got all crippled up when his tractor tipped over during a plowing one spring. Never was the same.

He was always cracking jokes and making me smile, as I recall, when he was feeling good enough to talk for any time.

The farmers, the real famers, not those agri-business conglomerate types, still have missing fingers, toes, hands and what not. They are a hardy and stoic breed.

That's a great story and intrigueing lead in. Pecan pie is probably my third favorite dessert in a pie tin, up there with blackberry cobbler and peach pie. I think I'll have to give your pecan pie recipe a try. Everything out here in Texas uses corn syrup and you're right, it overpowers and overly sweetens what should be a pie with a nice nutty pecan flavor and slightly meaty texture. Here it's more of a gloppy melange hidden under a few pecans on the surface, just so ya know it's a pecan pie.

So, where you're from how do you pronounce pecan?

Is it:
Peh cahn
pee Can
Pee kin
pee Cahn

I've heard it pronounced and emphasized four different ways and I'm wondering if you know it by one of those or a new one to add to my dialectical lexicon of pronunciation?

i had more than one "uncle" that had to use both hands to order four beers.
this pie looks kind of like shoo-fly pie here in rural Pa. ..
nice post, enjoyed.
Wonderful post, Ms. Bellwether Vance! Thanks for speculating on the possibly exciting, sparkly inner life of a mule...and for the really delicious-looking recipe! :)
Yummy writing and pie. Makes me want to be there, but I almost am because your writing is so vivid.
A delightful post and wonderful recipe. I wonder if Whole Foods has cane syrup? Congrats on the EP.
Bell, is cane syrup the same or similar to sorghum molasses? We have a sorghum festival here every October, and it's one of my favorite things to do! All kinds of "old-timey" crafts and stuff.
Aw, just finish the book already. I have to wait soooo long between posts! xo
Jon -- I'm glad we don't eat mule on a stick...the mule just turns the stick!

Miguela -- I never thought about the weirdness until you said it...but I guess it is weird, macabre. Back then the hands were just what made you a farmer, I think now we really notice when people are missing parts.

Lea -- I swear it wasn't that big of a piece. Or I didn't realize it until I saw the picture. But I didn't eat lunch.

Linnnn -- I'd trust a mule more than a horse. I do think a mule knows fingers aren't carrots. Horses, however....

Vivian -- Well, it's not a fennel pollen, but it'll do. Now I wonder how that fennel pollen would taste in a pie like this.

Susie -- Farming is a lot safer now, but with all the equipment and livestock there's definitely some risk.

Owl -- I'm not a sweets person either, which is why I tweak just about EVERY dessert recipe to make it less so. Mules will not work themselves to exhaustion, and that is certainly a sign of intelligence.

Linda -- I'm glad you've found a gluten-free way to enjoy pie! I do often think of you when I'm putting together a recipe that contains flour.

Lucy -- It makes me gag as well. I can't handle that overly sweet, gelatinous mess. It's the texture and the sweetness together that does it. I hope you'll try the recipe.

Oryoki -- Yeah, raw cane is overrated as a snack. It's a big ol blade of grass!

Sarah -- My mother had/has some pretty potent ideas. Particularly about safety and sickness. And I wonder why I have an anxiety problem.

Sophieh -- I AM proud of that crust. It turned out so pretty. Sometimes they aren't so pretty. Still delicious, but for pictures you want the pretty.

Chrissie -- I hope you do pick up some cane syrup. You can do a lot with it. I still do make "salve" -- sour cream and cane syrup 3:1 ratio, to spread on biscuits or pancakes.

Greenheron -- It wasn't SO ghastly! It's not like I actually found Papaw's sawed-off cancerous leg. I do wonder how many finger bones are plowed under these Southern fields; they lost so many and I can't think that they went to pick them up after they went flying. But your comment made me think of the Stephen King book "Thinner" -- pie played an important, gruesome role in that book.

Con -- Ha! I think Miss Sorghum will be the name of my next kitty. It's just full of personality.

Stim -- Well, certainly. You ain't never et no squirrel? You think you too good for squirrel? You just wait til the next apocalypse. Then we'll see.

Blue -- If you try it, let me know! It took me quite a while to get the ratio of nuts to syrup/sweetness just right.

Mumble -- I'm a workin' on it! You'll get the first advanced copy when I'm done.

Scanner -- I know a number of towns have a Mule Day. I think the biggest one is in Tennessee somewhere. Mules were so important in rural Southern life and I'm glad they are celebrated. I can't wait to see the pictures from your festival!
Dunniteowl -- Sounds like you have some stories of your own to tell!! Here along this small strip of rural farmland in NW Florida we pronounce it PEE-cawn. But it varies so widely all over the South and I've heard true Southerners pronounce it all different ways to the point where none is more authentic than the other except that anyone who says "pecan" in a rather bland way, as if the two syllables don't MATTER, those are definitely Northerners.

wschanz -- I'd be happy to have an uncle that liked beer. All of mine drank the blood of a really sober Jesus.

Rita -- I've always wondered about Sho0-fly pie. I'll have to look it up.

Clay -- When my children were small, I told them, "Birds know a lot, but lizards know EVERYTHING." The way they cock their heads and just stare right through you. Mules are right up there with the seeing.

Hawley -- Aw thanks! It is a yummy pie. I made two because my pie dough recipe makes two crusts. Now I'm stuck walking double time on my treadmill.

Christine -- It might. Steen's is a pretty widely distributed product. Though they don't produce their own cane and participate in the process from start to finish like the small-batch syrupmakers, it's still a great product.

Jeanette -- Sorghum molasses is a lot more strongly flavored. Cane syrup has a hint of molasses flavor, and has the same lower-level intensity of sweetness (as compared to corn syrup) but it's a lot mellower than molasses. We do have sorghum syrupmakers around here though, and a lot of the time you'll see them mixing the two for a unique blend.

Joan -- When I do, I'll send you a pie, overnight. If you'll promise to send some of your garden vegetables in return.
Terrific descriptions of mangled hands, limbs and dessert, unlikely as the combo may be. But then again, it is the South. :)

Good to hear from you, Bell, and that you're still not letting Mr. Vance get away with anything.
Bell, thanks! And indeed, we do have quite a Mule Day celebration in Columbia, Tennessee. But I'm ashamed to say that I've never been. I'll have to try and remedy that next year.
Charming written Bell. And if you can get Michelle Bachman to attend and chaw down on something on a stick, I'm there!
Bell ~ damn, meeting you is on my bucket list! I am trying to channel that Bjork/mule association you came up with, but somehow it works! Of course--as everything you do! I'm old skool, so here is Bing:
a mule can't make babies, right?
hey dunniteowl, in Texas, where the pecan is the state tree, we say puh-CAHN.

Bell, if the festival were on a cool crisp weekend, I would come join you. Your recipe for pecan pie is rather like my mom's. I will get her to compare and let you know. Now I am gonna get some cane syrup, not Karo. Thanks, girl.
A delightful read as always - though I'm very glad they don't eat any poor mules on Mule Day! I love your description of the farmers - so vivid and fun and real; I felt like I could see these strong, yet battered men. Happy Mule Day (a little late, I guess...)!
I too was a little farm kid in the 1950's ....
workplace safety these days mostly means drug testing.
Great piece. Rated for: "My paternal grandpa had so many partial fingers that his hands looked like two bar graphs..." alone.
As always, a terrific read! As a recent transplant to the South, I've only gotten to know the pleasures of cane syrup in the past year---there's a restored 19th century far near me where they crush cane and boil it outdoors (sans mule) at a festival every year--my husband got me my first bottle of cane syrup there. And we've got festivals of random stuff here too--a blue crab festival and a zucchini festival. Thanks for this!
Your mother was right. fingers do look like carrots. And your post looked like another chapter in The Book. I think you've got enough to take to an agent.
I'm going right out to search for cane syrup. I've never used it in baking but you've sold me on the idea. Funnily, my grandfather lost his ring finger to a skill saw and he kept the nub in his shop in a baby jar filled with what I assume was formaldehyde or some such. Used to freak me out as a kiddo so I can relate to your being scared you might find that missing leg under the couch :-)
Candace -- I just can't seem to get him to understand why you can't cut into a hot pie (or a hot cake). It's like in his mind "food is hot, cold food is nonsense." Grrrr.

Jeanette -- Oh yeah, you should go! I love these little festivals. I just wish they sold beer.

Abrawang -- Haw! I loved those photo ops. To be fair, I'd love to see anyone elegantly eating food off a stick. I'm not sure Jackie Kennedy or Audrey Hepburn could accomplish it.

Dirndl -- I'd forgotten about that Bing song. It was one of my favorites as a child! Funny thing is...meeting YOU is on my bucket list as well. Hopefully neither of us is anywhere near a tilting bucket and that time and space and charity allows it to happen while we're both still healthy.

Dianaaani -- Nope, the mule can't make babies. Which is really rather freeing, no? I'd love to have a peek at your mom's recipe. It took me so long to come up with a recipe that I LIKED, and after a lifetime of passing on pecan pies, I'm making up for lost time.

Alysa -- You're just a little early on the Happy Mule Day. I've eaten goat, squirrel, mullet, possum but no mule. I'm not saying it doesn't happen EVER, but not usually.

Noah -- That made me laugh. If our grandfathers had had access to some serious drugs at the time when there was no safety equipment they might have ended up mere torsos and heads.

Jeff -- I just wish I knew what he was trying to convey with those bar graphs. He was a complicated man.

Felicia -- Try the "salve" -- a 3:1 ratio of sour cream to cane syrup. It's great on pancakes and biscuits. I also like to use it in some candymaking and in homemade sauces wherever honey is called for.

Jeremiah -- I won't put it in capital letters, The Book, but it is coming. :)

Franish -- Ooooh. That is creepy. I almost with my PaPaw had put his leg in formaldehyde. Because that would be an art piece in NYC! Right?
bell, honey, y'all got any recipes for farmer finger pie?

pecan pie is a fave- fond memories of 4 a.m. coffee and pp at the local big boy during college....
I guess her fingers must look like carrots. I tried to bite my computer screen. Hee haw.

You startled me with "unintentional gang signs." No wonder good ol' Southern boys git into fights so much.
"They hobbled on cow-kicked knees, and gestured with butchered hands as they talked, throwing unintentional gang signs. . . .Most were missing several, their hands a study in ratios: a quarter nub, a half nub, a third."

"It seemed an unlikely thing to lose." (or unlucky?)

Around here, they used mules to haul the barges that ran on the canal that connected the Delaware and Lehigh rivers (and the Delaware to the Raritan over in Jersey, too). I read that old canal hands said they used horses at first, but the horses would just walk straight, regardless of how turny the towpath got. Mules had enough sense to follow the path. Don't know if that's truth or somebody having some fun with a city boy historian, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to give some credit to the mule.
You're a brilliant story teller....that's all there is to it. Loved this one, just like I love them all. I never liked pecan pie when I was little (pecans taste kind of dirty to me??), but maybe in the last 10 years or so, it's grown on me. I like my mother's version, which does use corn syrup, but we cut it with ice cream, if that says anything about the sweetness. The next time I get my hands on some cane syrup, I'm going to give this a try.
You always post while I'm comatose. How did I miss such a delicious gem! You're such a fun and very talented writer, Ms. Vance.
Thanks for the history and the event. I really love stuff like this but I will pass on the pie by the way!
Mmmm.... Mule Day pie...... Rated. ;)
Last to the gate, but I always stop in here on when I pop into OS. You are one of my very favorite contributors and I'm writing a cookbook for you, just in case you don't do it yourself.

In our neck of the river, a pee can was stuffed just under the back edge of the front seat of the car as my father refused to stop for any reason once he had his foot to the floor. I say peh CAHN most of the time, but when tippling I suppose it might disintegrate back to pee can. (or maybe I'm just looking for a bathroom -- I never know)

Karo syrup is about as vile as it's opposite cousin, black strap, which was originally the bitter burnt stuff in the bottom of the molasses barrel. Of course, your grandma and mine, being country girls, also knew this tar-like substance could be used as a 'tonic' because after all, when all the sugar was charred out of the syrup what was left was a fair source of vitamins and minerals. I think the minerals probably came from the the 'black strap' of metal holding the barrel together! blech. I admit to having a bottle of Brer Rabbit brand in the pantry though only Jesus would know how old it is. See you in Applachiccola for the oyster festival Bell!
Um, that would be Apalachicola, and I'll expect an oyster pie from you missy.
Lily -- My son loves to go to Waffle House and order the pecan pie, heated on the flattop and topped with ice cream. Probably after a night of drinking, but he leaves that part out when he's telling me about it.

Matt -- That would explain a lot, wouldn't it?

Pilgrim -- Mules are said to be very smart, and that they won't work themselves to the point of exhaustion, unlike other farm animals that allow themselves to be bullied, so I don't doubt your anecdote.

Lisa -- It's only as an adult that I grew to dislike the Karo syrup version. When I was little, the sweeter the better!! These days I've been steadily reworking all of our family recipes to make them less sweet while keeping them full flavored.

Fernsy -- Somehow I think your "comatose" is still faster than my treadmill walk.

Algis -- I'll give you a pass!

Angel -- I'll make it with more mule next time. ;)

Gabby -- I think a pee can is better than a snuff can, if I had to choose! We don't make it that far East to Apalach too often (I misspell it every single time too), but we do make a run to Gene's Oyster Bar in Panama City several times during the cold season, when they're so good you hate to do anything to them but eat them raw and call that a "recipe." But you've got me thinking about oyster pie now.
BV, each year I try to replicate a family recipe for pumpkin pecan pie. It is never like how my grandmother makes it and I follow the recipe precisely.

This year, I will I will buy extra pecans and try this too. Thank you!