A few weeks ago Judy had a post about an old Southern tradition. It was part of a living history exhibition on the NWR where she is presently volunteering. Little did I know when reading her post that the tradition was alive and well just a little over ten miles from my home.
A fifth generation syrup maker still grows a little sugar cane for his own personal consumption and sale, along with making syrup for the few other folks in the area that still grow it. His operation is a little larger than the one Judy spoke of, but the procedure is much the same. The mule or horse is missing, being replaced with an old Farmall tractor.
The mill for crushing the cane is larger, but the results are the same. The cane is fed between two large rollers to extract the juice.
Manufactured in Columbus, Georgia nearly a hundred years ago, it still performed well.
The juice runs from the mill through a couple of different screens into a large metal stock tank.
From there, it gravity feeds down to the cooker. A U shaped trough approximately thirty feet long and two feet wide.
The juice is skimmed to remove as much foam as possible because it makes the syrup dark.
As the juice makes its way along the trough it is progressively heated until it begins to steam. By the time it reaches the other end of the trough it is at a roiling boil.
It’s at this point where the syrup makers art becomes apparent. If you don’t cook it long enough it’s too thin and watery; too long it won’t pour and might scorch. Like a fine winemaker, he constantly stirs, tastes, and looks for certain things.
At the proper moment the valve is opened and what looks like liquid gold pours into a bucket.
From there it is dumped through another screen into the the bottling tub.
Each persons cane is cooked and bottled separately. That’s due to the different varieties of cane, as well as the variations within each crop. Just like grapes, different soils and moisture levels produce different sugar levels, which affects the final product. Though some mixing takes place at the beginning and end of each batch, as the cooker can’t run dry, what you bring in the way of sugar cane is what you take home in syrup.
The syrup maker himself takes a portion of each batch as payment for his mill and labor. By Christmas he has sold all he made for himself, as well as his take for cooking for others.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning on the first day of December. Just to be out in the country smelling that hot syrup cooking, visiting with folks young and old, and watching what’s soon to be a lost art, was awesome.
Oh, Yeah! I brought some home. Now to talk Wanda into a pan of hot biscuits….jc