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Raisin' Cane in Alabama!
(Food #11, June 28, 2003)

   Summer, 1958, was my college freshman summer. After working for a while selling peanuts at Woolworth's, I was hired by William Barrett company in my home town. Barrett was an oil exploration company, and our team finished out the summer slogging through the swamps and fields of northwestern Louisiana and southern Arkansas. We ran compass courses and entered instrument readings into Barrett's prospecting logs.
   As we crossed the countryside day by day we saw some interesting things: huge blackberry thickets with berries the size of pecans and as sweet as sugar; herds of docile cattle that watched us with great interest as they lay in the shade chewing their cuds; and lots of wildlife and other things. One item we came across frequently was a small piece of farm machinery made of vertical iron rollers mounted in a cast iron frame. They were mounted crudely on the end of a tripod of logs sunk into the ground in the middle of a clearing. A long timber was attached as a beam to a shaft at the top of the device. A horsecollar dangled from straps at the long end of the beam.
vertical grinder
A traditional cane mill with a nontraditional power source

   "What is that thing?" I asked my partner, Jimmy.
   "Cane grinder," he answered tersely. "For making syrup."
   I stepped closer to the machine. The ground was littered with sugar cane stalks. A deep groove encircled the flattened stalks.
   "You hook up a mule to the beam and he walks around while you feed the cane into the rollers. The juice squirts out and drips into a bucket."
   "And you make syrup from the juice? That thing is pretty rusty. Does the syrup come out OK?"
   Jimmy didn't really have an answer for that, so he said, "time to go."
   We hiked on down our compass course, leaving the empty clearing and cane press behind...until we came to another one another day.

Last year... ...forty-four years after I saw my first cane press, I got to watch, from start to finish, the syrup making techniques of two groups of experts, one from Alabama, the other from Florida. And, of course, I got to sample their cane juice and their syrups.

Trey and cane
Sugar cane is beautiful

*Thor Heyerdahl, in his book Fatu Hiva describes how natives of that small island chewed raw sugar cane as a candy. In the process, the fibrous husks cleaned their teeth to a bright white. Their teeth were healthy...    Sugar cane is a really beautiful, tall grass. There are varieties from brown to yellow, to bright red. They're each different in juice content and sweetness, but when they're ripe they're all sweet and fun to chew on. My Daddy used to bring us a few stalks occasionally as a treat from the Cotton Bowl Market in Shreveport.*

   Syrup making is a cold-weather endeavor. The cane is cut within about a week of the first heavy frost. The cold increases the sweetness of the juice—a delay would cause it to sour or ferment. As soon as the cane is cut, the pressing begins.

*...Later, when refined sugar was introduced from Tahiti, they forsook the cane for jams and jellies. Heyerdahl reports that within a year most of the islanders had lost or were losing their beautiful teeth to tooth decay.

Syrup Making, Alabama Style
   I was enjoying Thanksgiving with my daughter's in-laws in Hurtsboro, Alabama, when I discovered the town would be making syrup all that day. The pressing would be done in a local park and would proceed through the cooking until the cane was all gone, about a day and a half or two. When we reached the park about noon it was bitter cold.

   When we arrived at the park, grinding had paused and cooking the juice down was in progress. On a small roofed pavilion some men stoked the wood fire in the oven that boiled the juice in the huge iron kettle. This was a permanent installation similar to one I'd seen in Florida. The tall oven chimney pulled a draft through the firebox and around the kettle. It was roaring like a furnace. On this cold day, the pavilion was the warm place to be.
   The little park was filled with trucks and trailers-some already empty, some still partly loaded with cane. Most of the cane was of a dull yellow variety. In several of the trailers quart bottle necks with tax stamps and screw tops peeked out from beneath the stalks. Another method of staying warm, no doubt.
   What was obvious was that this was really a community party. Ribs and chickens sizzled on some pretty nice trailered BBQ grills. A lady with long straight hair, wearing wire-rim glasses and an earth-mother dress, offered us a slab of ribs, "...or maybe some pound cake?" while a pack of eager dogs kept their eyes open for a dropped bone or crust.
   An older Black man was skimming the kettle. His son hovered very close to Dad so he wouldn't overextend himself; Dad was too busy to notice. He'd been making cane syrup for several decades, and he wasn't about to opt out.
   In the evaporating process, the juice, fresh pressed from the cane, is added to the kettle and begins to boil. The juice naturally contains a fair amount of impurities. As it boils and thickens, the dirt and leaves and bits of stalk and bark roll to the suface, and the skimmer pulls them aside and deposits them along the shallow sloping rim of the great kettle. Someone with a damp cloth then wipes the fragments away as they show up. Earth Mother was doing the honors as I watched. The Maestro was using a coarse collander attached to a long wooden pole as a skimmer. After each skim he'd lift the syrup and let it spill back into the kettle to hasten the evaporation.
   Extra cane juice was ready in a large galvanized tub alongside the kettle. I scooped a few ounces out in a paper cup and tasted it. It was only faintly sweet, and the color was a ghastly cloudy gray, a little like the water on top of freshly-floated concrete. I discreetly offered it to one of the dogs who had more sense than I—he turned away.
   The boiling juice slowly thickens to syrup in the course of several hours. It's ready to jar when a spoonful of it runs down a sloping pan at a slow speed, known only to the Maestro. I tasted a little of this test syrup, and the transformation was amazing. It was now a rich golden color, and I thought it tasted almost as good as Louisiana cane syrup.
plate test
The Plate Test

   The last step in Hurtsboro was filtering the final product, blazing hot, through a bed sheet and into another galvanized tub. It would go into mason jars from there. Son was concerned that his Dad, the Maestro, might need some help, but the old man was going through motions he obviously knew very well.
straining in Alabama
Filtering the hot syrup

   A man next to me nudged my side. "You might want to be a little careful. Our syrup's not known for its purity. It may have a little trash in it."
   "It tastes pretty good to me," I answered.

   The Hurtsboro syrupmaking project would continue until the last stalk was pressed, the last kettle was bottled, the last rib was eaten, and the last swig of the last fifth of Beam had trickled down the last throat. The syrup would be made, but, more important, everybody would have had a good time.

wood fire under kettle Wood fire in the pavilion

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