Sweet Memories

A few weeks ago, I asked my 94-year-old dad if he had a favorite drink–thinking he might say something like a Manhattan or a Whiskey Sour. He looked skyward for what seemed like a long time, and then he finally announced, “probably cane juice.”

Huh? Cane juice? I guess I’m still learning things about my dad—and learning things from my dad, too. This lesson was about a great memory from his childhood in Savannah, Georgia, which was apparently overflowing with a sugary natural drink that I’d never even heard of.

Cane juice is made by crushing sugarcane stalks, and it is quite popular across the South, as well as throughout Latin America and in Southeast Asia. People have been enjoying this stuff for generations wherever sugarcane is grown (who knew?). Oh, and cane juice can also be aged to make rum (patience is an even greater virtue than I thought).

Whenever my dad had money in his pocket as a kid, he would stop for cane juice at roadside stands around Savannah. He also shared that there were a lot of stands in nearby Guyton, where his Aunt Beth lived on what we’d nowadays probably call a farm (she kept chickens and pigs out back).

Fresh cane juice had to either be consumed or refrigerated right away, which wasn’t a hard choice for a thirsty kid (and there wasn’t much refrigeration in those days, anyway).

With my dad’s re-kindled interest in cane juice, my sister found a place close to where he lives in Florida that serves it in much the same way as the stands across Savannah in the 1930s. The community of Bokeelia, on Pine Island, is only about 40 minutes from my folks’ home in Fort Myers, but it feels lost in time. Pine Island still has general stores, motels that advertise in-room color TV, endless fruit groves–and a place called Fruitscapes that sells amazing fruit as well as fresh-pressed cane juice.

We stopped into Fruitscapes for a visit this week, and were delighted to find fresh juice—along with pomelos, bananas, persimmons, dried mangos, and a super friendly staff. During our visit, our new friend Cecelia gave us a little education along with a glass of the prized juice. Just as in the old days, she threaded several stalks of sugarcane through a press, and then folded the partially flattened canes in half and did it again. The whole press contraption looked like it was made in 1930, so maybe that’s why the juice tasted so familiar to my dad.

So, for four dollars, we got a demonstration, a drink, and a chance to hear stories about Savannah in the 1930s. I’m not sure I’d say that I like cane juice better than a Manhattan. But you probably have to drink six Manhattans to take a trip through time, and it only takes one cup of cane juice.

Picking A Cake

My dad just turned 93, a big number, and I asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday. Before he could answer, my mom chimed in and shared that “he loves hickory nut cake!” Now I’ve known this guy for a long time, seemingly a lifetime, so how could I not know this?

“His Aunt Lillian made him a hickory nut cake for his eighth birthday,” my mom went on, “and quite a few times after that. She even mailed the cakes to him when he was in the Army.” My dad’s eyes lit up as he remembered those cakes.

My dad had his own cake stories, of course. “Aunt Lillian would gather shagbark hickory nuts from the tree right out front of her house,” he told me, “and she would sit at the table and pick the nuts for hours on end. Even the squirrels avoided hickory nuts, because they’re hard as hell to pick. But she made me a cake most every year…until her eyes got bad.”

“She probably went blind from picking those damned nuts!” my mom interrupted.

“Lillian always lived with Inez and Sarah and Uncle Nicky,” my dad continued. “And she was very smart. She was the bookkeeper for Aunt Inez’s Milliner shop.”

“What?” I responded. “I thought Aunt Inez was a hatmaker?”

When my dad was growing up in Savannah, hickory nuts were easy to gather all over the green spaces of the city, and they probably still are. Hickory nut cakes were pretty popular in the 1930s, maybe because the Great Depression put a premium on recipes that required a trip to the park instead of a trip to the store.

Hickory nuts aren’t quite as easy to gather where I live in Virginia, but I was able to buy some on-line from a guy in North Carolina. I was psyched to find them, although it marked the first (and perhaps last) time I’ve done business with someone called “Carolina Nut Dude.”

My dad didn’t have any details on Lillian’s recipe, but I was able to find several recipes for “old fashioned hickory nut cake” on the net. The recipes were pretty similar, with most of them calling for flour, egg yolks, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and vanilla. I made mine in a loaf pan with brown sugar frosting, just as Aunt Lillian used to do.

We enjoyed our cake as my parents reminisced about Savannah in the 1930s. They shared fun memories of Lillian and of things that they did as kids, pretty amazing considering that it all happened 85 years ago.

As for shelling those nuts, that part hasn’t changed much. It is still a very tedious and time-consuming process. My mom jumped in to help me when I was making my cake, and then summarily stabbed herself in the wrist with a nut picker—reminding us why everybody needs a nutty aunt like Lillian.