Sunday, August 7, 2011

In the Small Things

When I was little, I would wake to the aromas of my parents' breakfasts.  The grown-up smells of coffee and bacon and biscuits and eventually my dad's post-breakfast Lucky Strike(which, to my great gratitude, he gave up in the mid-Sixties) wafted their ways into my bedroom well before sunup most of the year; in the winters, when the farm didn't require that Daddy be at it quite so early, he and Mother would rise a bit later and frequently I'd find my way to the kitchen table to be with them.

Daddy loved sorghum molasses.  So did I.  By my recollection, we kept a jar of molasses on the kitchen table for every breakfast and I think it must have just been kind of moved around, but not typically removed, at other meals.  It was a presence on the table, like the salt and pepper shakers.  Daddy would pour out a puddle of molasses into his plate, slice a couple of pats of butter onto it, mash it all together with a knife and dredge his biscuits through it.  It was delicious.  I liked my butter completely incorporated into my molasses, making it a creamy pool into which I'd sop my biscuits (which my grandmother made from scratch every morning, cutting them out with an empty tin orange juice can).  Oh, it was so good!

In the fall of 2000, I came home from Dallas for a few days to see the folks.  My father, by now in his mid-eighties but always one for a road trip, thought it would be a good idea to take a little excursion over into Tennessee.  My father grew up in west Tennessee, and he enjoyed going back there and seemed to know every inch of that part of the state.  He wanted to visit a Mennonite sorghum mill outside of the town of Finger, somewhere around Jackson and a couple of hours' drive from home.  He'd been there before, and he swore they made the best molasses ever, and we could visit the actual operation and watch them making it (Daddy was also always keen to see how things were made) because it was the right time of year.  Anyway, it was something to do, so my mom and my dad and my little niece and I all loaded up and off we went to go find molasses.  On orders I drove, Daddy rode shotgun and navigated, and Mother and Chelsey settled into the back seat.

It was cool and overcast and sort of rainy.  We crossed the Mississippi River at Caruthersville and turned southeast beyond Dyersburg.  We went through Jackson and past Henderson and. . . we got lost.  And my dad typically didn't get lost.  He hadn't been there in a few years and I'm not sure, but maybe he'd only been there once before, and maybe he hadn't been the one to drive previously (although he didn't say either of those things), yet Daddy knew that we needed to turn left and head east somewhere after Henderson.  However, there weren't any roads leading east other than little unmarked gravel lanes into country woods.  Daddy began to get tetchy and grumpy.  It surely didn't help that Mother and my niece kept singing "Who Let the Dogs Out?", but he didn't say anything.  (Somehow, I didn't either.)  I drove and drove and drove; I turned around and drove back the other way, then turned around again.  Eventually, with the thinking that surely it would somehow lead us either to Finger or to a road that would get us there, he had me turn onto one of those little lanes, which got narrower and more and more country-woodsy.  I think we came upon some hunters and asked them about "the sorghum mill"; they couldn't give us any direction.  Finally we came out onto a blacktop road and made our way into Finger, Tennessee.  By then it was raining in earnest.  The town was just a dot of a place, but it did have a grocery store, and I have some vague recollection of seeing a bank.  There was a little boy -- about nine years old, perhaps -- jogging down the street with a grocery bag.  My father rolled down his car window and called to him, asking him where the sorghum mill was.  The kid didn't know.  Daddy, frustrated and irascible, said something to the effect of "Well, you sure don't know much, do you?" and rolled up the window and had me drive off, to my chagrin.

We continued out of town, looking for signs for the sorghum mill through the rain-coated windshield.  It was pouring.  We came upon a church, where some men were getting into cars, but they drove away before we were able to make inquiry of them.  We turned around in the church parking lot and retraced our route.  The rain had slacked and on our way back into Finger we saw a man working in a shed, so we stopped there and asked him if he knew of a sorghum mill in the area.  Finally:  someone who knew something!  We were to go on toward Finger and look for a sign for the place on the right, not very far from where we were.  And presently we arrived at our intended destination -- the Stoll family farmhouse, a long shed where Stoll's sorghum was cooking down in long staggered vats that made me think of the locks in the Panama Canal, and scores of what I remember as whitewashed gourd birdhouses (but maybe they were traditional purple martin houses).  We watched the cooking process for some time while my dad chatted with the men working it.  I recall it as very much a family operation, and theirs seemed to be a big family.  Inside their home, they sold the molasses by the jar and in cases from a room right off the kitchen.  End of story:  We bought cases of the stuff, my father's good spirits were restored -- he knew all along what he was looking for and pretty much where it was, he was just having a hard time finding it again -- and I took at least one case back to Dallas with me to share this hard-gained bounty, very selectively, with special friends.

Well, not quite the end of the story.  Daddy was right -- Stoll's was the best molasses ever.  I had been stingy with it but after a while, it was all gone.  I knew it was a very local product and that I wasn't going to be able to find it in Texas.  I saved a label off a jar and several months later called the number printed thereon to order more but they were out of stock until the next harvest.  So I rather thought that our ramble into mid-western Tennessee to acquire this ambrosia was a one-time experience -- an experience deeply embedded in my heart and my mind -- and that I was unlikely to get any more Stoll's sorghum molasses.  Memorable as it was, I had no intention of repeating that trip and wasn't going to ask anyone else to do so.

But God is in the small things as well as the large.  Five years later, my beloved Daddy gone now, I moved back to the Missouri Bootheel to live with my mom.  Our only grocery in town is a Piggly Wiggly.  Our Piggly Wiggly STOCKS Stoll's sorghum molasses.  And I bring it to the Kennett Community Farmers Market by way of my spiced molasses cookies.

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