10 Country: Charles' Free Meal - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

10 Country: Charles' Free Meal

Charles Baldree Charles Baldree
Cooking cane syrup Cooking cane syrup
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December 2, 2003

Tift County-- The holiday season often brings out the best in people who do nice things for others, often for people they don't know. That happened this past Saturday when a family decided to once again prove an old saying is wrong.

No advertising. Simple white signs with black lettering point the way to the country road where an honest-to-goodness free meal gets served the first weekend after Thanksgiving.

It seems almost everyone knows about it. "Started nine or ten years ago," says Charles Baldree, who doesn't know for sure when his family's free breakfast began, and it doesn't matter to him. "Just started as a neighborhood get together," says Charles Baldree standing by steaming kettles of sugarcane syrup cooking.

He thinks about 200 people came the first time they did it, and he says as many as two thousand people made it another time. "My wife, my kids and all we just decided we wanted to do it, and we started doing it," says Charles Baldree.

They can count on Gene Evans coming. "Been to every one of them, I reckon," says Gene sipping a cup of steaming coffee before eating his fourth helping.

For his friend, Carrie Young, this was her first time, and she lives in the neighborhood. "I've been too busy to come," says Ms.Young. But, not too busy this year. She came and ate the free pancakes, syrup and sausage. "Whew, I can't eat another one!"

People young and not so young patiently stand in line to get the breakfast. They don't seem to mind waiting, some standing outside the door of the tin barn, out in the cold. No pushing. No breaking in line. People smile when they hear the pancakes and sausage sizzling on the five griddles.

Some women dress in furry coats. Some people dress in overalls, a mix of fashion and backgrounds, with a common interest. Karin Cochran and her husband, Jerry, drove about six hours from the Orlando, Florida area to attend. "We've been coming for about the past seven years. My husband comes to watch the syrup making and I come to let someone else feed me," says Karin with a laugh.

The Baldree family use to count the number of people who ate breakfast with them, but not any more. "Why worry about it? People come to enjoy themselves and we do," says Charles Baldree.

He doesn't know exactly how much the breakfast costs. He doesn't know how many people came. He doesn't care. "Look at them fellowshipping and having fun," says Charles Baldree pointing to a group of people laughing.

He does know a lot of them come to see the syrup making done the old fashioned way. Big, iron, open topped kettles bubble like a volcano about to erupt. Big columns of steam lift upward. The syrup bubbles, even splashing over the sides occasionally.

People stand close-by. Grandparents enjoy showing their grandchildren how they use to make syrup. Others sit mesmerized by the old process. "It takes about three-and a-half hours on average per kettle, " says Charles Baldree, to cook the cane juice into syrup.

An uncle taught him about syrup making. He watches all three kettles closely. "Turn it off," says Charles Baldree, pointing to a kettle on the end. Within seconds, a family member dips an aluminum pot, attached to what looks like the end of a broomstick, into the boiling syrup. He dips from right to left transferring several gallons of syrup from the black kettle to a stainless steel holding cart. A metal slide attached to the cart returns any syrup that might spill back into the kettle. Then, Mr. Baldree immediately starts filling the kettle with cane juice to start another batch.

A crowd of people watches their every move as if hypnotized. Those who come to his barn turned fast food restaurant once a year prove the ole saying, "There's no such thing as a free meal" is wrong, flat out wrong. The Baldree's don't expect anything in return. "Not a thing. Not a thing," Says Charles with a grin.

They don't keep up with how many people attend their breakfast party, or how much it costs them. "Why worry about it? People come and enjoy themselves and we do to," says Charles Baldree, whose family starts the holiday season in the spirit of giving rather than receiving.

posted at 9:00AM by dave.miller@walb.com