This thick, amber substance used to be a staple of the South.
Story by Michele Roldán-Shaw
Imagine a time when sweets were hard to come by and even store-bought white sugar was a precious commodity brought out for special occasions and guests. Back then the usual fixin’ was cane syrup. A thick, amber substance reminiscent of molasses but without the richly bitter burnt taste, cane syrup was once a staple of the South, spooned into coffee and poured over cornpone and biscuits. Growing, grinding and cooking cane was something most families did for themselves, like raising hogs or planting vegetables. Now it’s more of a nostalgia thing, favored by old-timers and trendy heritage foodies.
I once attended a family cane cooking at a farmstead in Georgia. An old man was whittling little sticks of raw cane, then using them to scoop out the foam that bubbled up the sides of the syrup kettle. After letting the foam harden into “candy,” he passed it out to the kids. “Tastes like the white stuff from a Co’-Cola,” one girl observed. When the cooking was through, they gave away all the syrup in quart-sized Mason jars that might have sold for $26.99 at a fancy shop in Charleston.
From the industrial refineries and backyard sugar shacks of Louisiana, to the bundles of heirloom purple ribbon cane sold by the roadside on Sea Islands, sugarcane has history here. It’s a tortuous one, as the plant was first imported with slave labor and a brutal plantation economy pioneered by the Lords Proprietors in the cane fields of Barbados, then shrewdly recreated in the Colony of Carolina. There’s nothing sweet about greed and cruelty. But sugarcane is a tropical crop that didn’t do well this far north, so while local planters moved on to rice, indigo and cotton, cane survived in the dooryards of the people.
“Everybody had a little cane patch for home use,” recalls Johnny Cahill, whose family has farmed the same land in Bluffton for over 100 years. “You had to do it to survive; you couldn’t just go to the store and buy it.”
Cahill recently bought a cane grinder from a South Carolina vendor and set it up outside his family restaurant, Cahill’s Market and Chicken Kitchen in Bluffton. He aims to do a cane cooking, but every year there seems to be some more urgent task, like getting the pumpkin patch ready or bringing in the Christmas trees. Sugarcane is a fall harvest. After it’s cut, the juice is extracted by running it through a press, which in the old days was turned by a mule, but now people do it with a tractor. The fresh juice is cooked for hours over an outdoor fire in a huge 60-gallon vat, a long slow process that has to be done just right; foam has to be scooped off to keep it clean, and the heat has to be cut at the exact right moment to achieve the desired consistency. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of time to grill out or partake in all sorts of festivities.
“It was like a field day,” explains Cahill, who still favors cane syrup over that other stuff from the store. “One man in the neighborhood would have a mill, so he’d invite everybody else over and grind their cane for them. It always happened on a cold day, and everybody would stand around the fire.”
Check out the cane press next time you go to lunch at Cahill’s. Or visit the Georgia Salzburger Society Museum in Rincon to see another example of an antique cane mill, which is so well built that it turns with the slightest effort. Want to try authentic cane syrup? Consider the Lavington Farms label, made in Colleton County and available at foodforthesouthernsoul.com. LL