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A Cane Grinding Good Time!

Guests enjoyed a good old-fashioned cane grinding at the home of Bruce “Cog” and Melaine Skinner on Oct. 19.

-Photo: Jeffry Boatright

Cog Skinner and friends begin the straining process for the syrup.
-Photo: Jeffry Boatright

By Jeffry Boatright

There are many food items that we might consider essential in North Florida, and sugarcane syrup is certainly a top contender on the list. There is just something special about the taste of cane syrup heaped upon a flaky buttermilk biscuit on a crisp fall morning. For many North Floridians, cane syrup is more than just a condiment or topping. It is a tradition, perhaps even a staple food.

Those of us who love the taste of cane syrup have a sincere appreciation for the product. We recognize that there is an art to cooking quality syrup that is truly biscuit worthy. We also realize that not everyone has mastered the art of syrup making. There are, however, a number of syrup makers in our area, such as Bruce “Cog” Skinner of Suwannee County, who have genuinely preserved the art and mastered the skill of cooking sugarcane syrup.

Like many other enthusiasts of grinding sugarcane and cooking syrup, Skinner was exposed to the process when he was young. “About eight or nine years ago, I began making syrup,” Skinner explained. He added that Mark Carver, also of Suwannee County, had significantly influenced him in making syrup.

Skinner’s approach to making syrup is synonymous to the approach that he takes in any of his interests. He strives for excellence and is passionate about what he does, while finding joy in it. Perhaps even more important, he embraces the company of friends and family to share in his joy.

Skinner along with his wife, Melaine, hosted Skinner’s Annual Cane Grinding on Oct. 19. It was an all-day event that provided the opportunity for seasoned syrup makers to assist Skinner, as guests looked on in fascination. According to Skinner, the process of grinding cane and cooking syrup takes about six to seven hours, providing all goes well. He admitted, however, that there is a considerable amount of work that goes on behind the scenes long before the cane juice starts to cook and after the last bottle is filled.

Although the Skinners make it look easy, Cog promptly acknowledges that it is a joint effort that would not be possible without Melaine. “She works very hard to make it a success,” he emphasized.

In a sense, the process never ends. Skinner explained that sugarcane is a perennial grass, and covering the rows after harvest protects the roots for the following year’s production. “Old-timers recommend replanting every five or six years,” he added.

Springtime brings new growth in Skinner’s cane patch each year. He diligently waters and cares for his crop, preparing to cut and strip the stalks in the fall, and eventually grinding them and cooking the juice into syrup.

It truly is a labor of love, but the Skinners yield much more from their passion of the cane grinding than just the syrup. They find delight in seeing so many enjoy the family-friendly atmosphere of a good old-fashioned cane grinding. The fellowship, children playing and riding on a makeshift train are all part of the fun. Watching the foam rise from the cane juice as it cooks inside a large kettle and eating the polecat, which is a candy-like substance that forms at the edge, are also basics of a memorable cane grinding that is cherished.

At last, the crowd sees Skinner and friends strain the syrup into a tub from which the final product is bottled. Like most cane grindings, there is plenty of food on hand for the event. According to Skinner, there are many people to thank for preparing the food. He recognized Buddy Williams and Lynn Stapleton for cooking the meat and recognized Stevie and Theron Dasher, as well as Robbie Robinson for their contributions.

While it was a festive event with over 200 attending, there was a somber moment as festivities were paused for a moment of silent prayer for one of Suwannee County’s favorite citizens, Pat Gaylord, during her time of illness. In addition, Skinner donated a case of syrup to be used in fundraising efforts for Gaylord.

Cane syrup is indeed a North Florida delicacy that can make good sausage and biscuits even better. The production of the syrup, however, is a North Florida tradition that can even make good fellowship better, especially when conducted with the passion and hospitality of Cog and Melaine Skinner.

Cog Skinner checks the temperature of the cooking syrup during his annual cane grinding. -Photo: Jeffry Boatright

Jacob Grantham (left) assists Bruce “Cog” Skinner with cooking the syrup. -Photo: Jeffry Boatright

Skinner’s cane patch was the perfect landscape for these young riders during Skinner’s Annual Cane Grinding.
-Photo: Jeffry Boatright

Grinding cane is always a favorite part of the whole process.
-Photo submitted