Thursday, May 09, 2013

Sourwood Honey

Most folks around Beloved, Kentucky knew Billy Gilbert at Uncle Billy.  Though his son lived off in another state, he was the unofficial patriarch of his hometown.  A 75 year old force to be reckoned with.

He lived alone up a holler over on Little Gilbert's Creek since his wife Dell slipped away home to Heaven five years ago.  Uncle Billy was the wise man that men went to when they didn't understand their women, needed an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on... though mountain men did not cry.  Keep that straight!

The July morning was already hot when he rose up from bed.  It was still dark but his internal clock was most likely an old wind up Big Ben just like the one that sat on the table beside his bed.  He wound it regularly but never set an alarm on it.  The internal Big Ben had been working just fine for many years.

His old dog Sooner sat up at the foot of the bed, yawned and stretched before going to the door to wait.  Uncle Billy put on his britches, buckled his belt and slipped on his shirt before going to open the door and let Sooner out.  The old man and old dog had a routine that varied little from day to day.

In the kitchen there was one of them fancy coffee pots stuffed back in the corner of the counter that was seldom used.  It had been a gift from his son, Bill to Dell several years back.  Uncle Billy didn't mess with it, however.  He preferred his coffee boiled in a pot like he had been drinking it for over 50 years.

As he waited for the coffee to boil he put some country bacon in a pan to fry.  It was thick, peppered with the rind still on one side.  The smell brought Sooner to the kitchen door, his nose pushed to the screen and inhaling deep.  Uncle Billy laughed and opened the door.  Sooner's bowl was already full and waiting for him.

"Old dog, we are gonna go up into the hill today.  The sourwood is bloomin' an' I have been seein' bees goin' up the mountain from them trees." he said to Sooner, as if the dog understood.  Sooner raised his head from the bowl and looked for a moment before returning to his meal.

"We need to follow some of them bees and see if we can get some idea where they are goin'.  I know there is a bee tree up there somewhere before the ridge.  I've sat and walked the ridge for several days and don't see arry a bee on the top of the hill.  They have got to be somewhere on this side of that hill."

He absently turned the bacon as he stared off through a window.  His mind was already walking that hillside, remembering each path as he thought of the sourwood and the bees that were as thick as the blooms on the trees.  Sourwood trees were late bloomers and their fragrance would turn a woods into some sort of heaven as you walked up on them.

Sourwood honey was a prize in the mountains and much sought after by locals and city folks alike.  The seven hives in the backyard had already been relieved of the wildflower honey in the honey supers just as soon as the sourwood started to bloom.  Uncle Billy always did his first extracting just as the sourwood bloomed so the next honey in the hives would be sourwood honey.

Seven hundred and thirty seven one pound jars of mountain wildflower honey sat on the shelves over in his honey house, waiting to be sold.  Most good years he could expect at least one honey super from each hive full of sourwood honey.  That was about fifty pounds per hive, maybe three hundred and fifty jars of sourwood honey that would soon line the shelves that waited empty.

His studying on the sourwood honey led him to the refrigerator and to a can of biscuits.  Dell would skin him if she knew he was making store bought biscuits.  She swore "nary a can of store bought biscuits will ever come in this house.". They never did while she was alive.

Uncle Billy didn't have the talent or the time to make the big ol' cathead biscuits that his wife had made.  Though they were a poor substitute, a hot store bought biscuit with real butter from a neighbor and some sourwood honey sounded pretty good to him.

Before long the biscuits were out of the oven and two eggs were frying in an old cast iron skillet.  The first couple years after Dell died his eggs ate fine but weren't too pretty to look at.  When a man lives alone he has plenty of time to study on good lookin' eggs as well as other things in life.  the eggs that Uncle Billy slid onto his plate were just a good as any mountain woman would ever want to fry.

"Old dog, we are gonna do some bee linin' today when we go up on the hillside.  I'll bet we find that ol' bee tree today.  I sure would like to get a couple more bee gums goin' down here.  We'll find them ol' bees yet." he said between bites of breakfast.

That was a man that didn't like for moss to grow under his feet.  He always was working on one thing or another.  He made and sold brooms, plain ones for local folks, fancy ones with unique handles for tourists and visitors, walking sticks, wooden whistles, whirlygigs and gee-gaws.  He had a still in the barn where he cooked down sassafras to make a concentrate he bottled and sold for tea. 

When he walked the woods he would walk with a hoe.  It was good protection when he walked up on a snake and was needed when digging for ginseng.  He had a couple pounds hanging in the barn drying.  Maybe as he was bee lining he would walk up on some more.


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