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Family festival explores food traditions of season

POSTED: December 28, 2017 6:30 p.m.
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Sampson Alvin, who came up to help with the cane grinding, chomps a sweet potato grown in his field.

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Saturday, the Cane Grinding Festival in the Freedman Grove community stirred up all kinds of food memories.

Aaron "Buster" Robinson and his wife Gloria hosted the fifth annual festival that centered on the historic, two-story Rosa Lambright House built in the late 1890s. Lambright taught hundreds of African Americans across several generations in the east end of Liberty County.

The festival celebrated the time-honored agricultural tradition of families gathering to harvest the sugary stalks in the fall/winter. Visitors experienced the old-time way of processing sugar cane into syrup and juice. The weather held out, and from old to young there was something for everyone.

And, of course, there was food galore. Deep fried mullet and catfish was accompanied by down-home, slow-cooked grits. There were also smoked and grilled chicken, pork ribs, mullet, hot dogs, onions, and some honey-child-shut-yo-mouth sweet potatoes. I learned the real way to eat grilled sweet potatoes and it is not with a knife and fork.

The Robinsons’ grandson, also named Aaron, apprenticed with older cane grinders, who traveled from Glynn and Camden counties to demonstrate the tradition. A soldier who served four years in the United States Army, the younger Robinson said he hopes to carry on the tradition that his grandfather established at the Lambright estate.

Irene Ward of Richmond Hill said that when she grew up in Sunbury, her father Arthur "Kid" Stevens, a Geechee fisherman, worked for Stevens Shipping Co. on Hutchinson Island. He was a fishing guide for charter groups in and around St. Catherines and Colonels islands. He and his wife Sara were adept at knitting cast nets.

Ward said she often heard him say "I’se fixin’ a po’ maan net" in the Geechee language. Translation: "I’m making a net that catches both fish and shrimp."

Seafood was a huge part of the Geechee diet as was anything that could be hunted such as deer, rabbit, raccoon, squirrels and possum. The land and the sea sustained many families, Ward said.

"I remember my father bringing home bags of fresh peanuts from those large croaker sacks that must have spilled open on the ships," she said. "And my mother would gather us around the oven and we would roast those peanuts and they were so good."

Gloria Williams also recalled family food traditions, especially her mother Annie Mae James who ran Annie Mae’s Sweet Shop on Martin Road in Midway. Her specialty was home-baked sweets including cakes, pies and cookies.

"People would come from miles around for my mother’s cakes," Williams recalled. "In fact, when people from places like New York would visit between Christmas and New Year’s Day they would pick up their cake to eat here and they would place an order to take a cake with them back to New York."

Glass-Hill, a recent transplant from Atlanta, is a public/research historian who moved to Midway to open the Susie King Taylor Institute. www.susiekingtaylorinstitute.org

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