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Center man brews sticky, sweet memories

To travel back through time in Lincoln County, one has only toturn up the heat and cook down the years to arrive in the sticky,sweet days of old.

And there will be plenty of syrup and biscuits when onearrives.

Thanksgiving is the time of year when Center Community’s JackieTaylor gathers his family and friends at the cabin on Peavey Trailto cook old-fashioned cane syrup, rolling out his vintage tools andbringing the past alive with gospel singing, buggy rides andsyrup-drenched cathead biscuits. The former oil man-turned-chickenfarmer only cooks twice per year – once was before Thanksgiving,which happened Monday, and once afterward, an event open to thepublic on Saturday at 8 a.m. at Taylor’s Farm on Peavey Trail, justoff Pleasant Grove Road.

After that, Taylor will be stuck in modern times until nextyear, waiting for a light frost on the sugar cane to get cookingconditions just right. But he’ll have this week’s memories to holdhim over until then.

“The syrup is a byproduct, the memories is what’s best,” Taylorsaid. “I’ve told all these kids and grandkids we’re makingmemories.”

To make those memories, Taylor starts with sugar cane logs andends with Taylor’s Farm pure cane syrup in a custom plastic jug. Inbetween comes grinding, boiling, stirring and straining.

Taylor’s first step in making cane syrup is feeding sugar caneinto his Golden Metal Cane Mill No. 27, a belt-driven grinder builtin 1905 powered by an old John Deere. The sweet mash is gathered ina 150-gallon catch vat before underground pipes feed it into abutane-heated evaporator pan, where the juice is cycled and heatedand cooked into syrup. From there, the good stuff is strained andbottled at 160 degrees.

Juice in, syrup out. The evaporator pan is the crux of theoperation, allowing Taylor to control the heat and produce thefinest syrup.

“A lot of people do it now with just a batch pan and cook itdown like cooking in a pot,” he said. “I wanted to do it the waythey did in the old days, with an evaporator pan. I can cook 100gallons in a day where they can only cook around 20. In the olddays, they’d cook 100 gallons per day, starting at 4 a.m. andrunning ’till 11 p.m.”

One hundred gallons per day is what Taylor shoots for.

To gain so much output requires considerable input – it takes 10gallons of mash to make one gallon of syrup. It takes about four16-foot trailer loads of cane to get to 100 gallons of syrup.

From the first cane log to the first batch of syrup takes justover one hour.

The flavor of the syrup depends on the flavor of the cane.Taylor’s favorite ingredient is green sugar cane 4852, a specialcrossbreed developed at Mississippi State University. He can alsouse red cane, which makes a sweet, dark syrup; and purple cane,which makes a strong, dark syrup.

The cooking process can get expensive, with fuel for the tractorand the cost of Taylor’s custom jugs, so he often works out asystem with cane suppliers, cooking on halves and trading servicefor syrup.

Taylor’s interest to cane syrup cooking started four years agoafter a visit to the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum,where he helped in a cane syrup-cooking exhibition. Now, he’s thelocal expert – following in the footsteps of the late Hobo Johnson,who cooked cane syrup in the Center Community for many, many years- and people come to see him.

Witnessing Monday’s syrup-making exhibition at Taylor’s farmwere members of a seniors group from Fair River Baptist Church.

“We told our senior citizens we’re going to carry them back intothe times,” said John Pennington, the church’s senior citizencoordinator, who remarked on the syrup and hog head cheese.

Taylor normally sells the quart-sized jugs for $8, but his syrupis not available at a retailer near you.

“Most of the time, people here buy it. I’ve never had to put itout,” he said. “Most of the time it’s gone before I can.”

Batches of Taylor’s Farm syrup often find their way North toAmish Country, where Taylor trades with his old-fashioned friends.Taylor buys and sells Belgian horses with the Amish, and currentlyhas 28 of the powerful animals on his farm.

The best batch Taylor has mailed out went to servicemen in Iraqfor Christmas one year.

The random troop that received a crate of Taylor’s syrup wroteback to him, saying they were especially homesick during theholidays and the sweet stuff helped comfort them. The letter saidthe syrup “sure didn’t last long.”

“That was worth the whole thing right there,” Taylor said,proudly showing off his letter of thanks. “I’m going to try to sendsome to Afghanistan this Christmas.”