Chapel Hill, N.C.

Memories in a Coffee Can

By Emily Crudup Cameron

We were blessed last year with a summer that arrived a little later than usual in central North Carolina. Once here, it didn’t waste any more time in delivering the debilitating one-two punch of heat and humidity that knocks the breath out of you when you are forced to leave the heaven-on-earth we know and love as air conditioning. How naïve (or desperate) I was when I moved here almost thirty years ago from the Atlanta area, thinking it would be so much cooler in North Carolina. Alas, it was not so. With heartfelt appreciation, I would like to take this opportunity to publicly offer my deepest personal thanks to Mr. Willis Haviland Carrier, the father of air conditioning and modern genius responsible for southern summer survival.

As a child growing up in Georgia, I couldn’t stay inside in the “a.c.” all day and tried to keep cool by other means that by necessity had to be free of charge. The more entertaining methods most often involved water and/or wildlife. Wading waist-deep in a pond to scoop up a bucketful of tadpoles at various stages of frog evolution was typically not very challenging. It was, however, somewhat educational and cooling…not to mention squishy.

Once bored with tadpole maneuvers, my sister and I would catch tiny, thimble-sized chocolate-brown toads and send them out in the pond on pleasure cruises launched on golden magnolia leaves that had fallen from the heat and curled naturally into boats that slipped easily among the heavenly scented water lilies. Of course we thought it looked like the best thing that ever happened to the tiny passengers, but they usually bailed out mid-cruise and kicked their way back to shore.

From the outflow of the pond, a small stream ran right past our house and held the promise of more fun ways to stay cool. In the shady end of the shallow stream, lived generations of crawfish (no, definitely not “crayfish”) among the leaves and silt that lined the banks. We were usually successful in getting the small younger crawfish to crawl, backwards as they do, into large quart-size coffee cans. The more elusive and wiser “granddaddies” hid in their secret holes under the rocks and roots at the base of the sweetbay magnolia that shaded the stream. We learned from our mother, having been raised in south Louisiana, to coax the clever big ol’ crawfish patriarchs out of hiding by using a bit of bacon tied at the end of a string. The menagerie we captured became temporary detainees of the nearby concrete birdbath, occasionally to be liberated by a hungry blue jay. The more feisty survivors were honored with a parade which often became a race down the sidewalk and then returned to their hiding places in the stream.

On one occasion our mother sautéed for us one of the tiny trophies in an attempt to demonstrate what the real rewards of crawfish hunting could be. The nickel-sized sweet niblet alone in a sea of butter in a black iron skillet was met by us hunters with some surprise and disappointment, “Is that all there is??” Many years later I would learn the true joys of etouffe over rice.

Even now, after drinking and enjoying coffee for decades, the smell of the wet grounds invariably brings to mind those stifling summer days spent with the crawfish in the cool retreat of a shady stream.