As crimson leaves shower the
earth and the harvest moon rises over the landscape, the autumn ritual of syrup making begins. Sugar cane was first cultivated
in India 4,000 years ago as a healing tonic. Cane production spread throughout Europe, and settlers imported cane into America.
Grinding cane for syrup became a social event in communities where spectators traveled to the site to sample and buy syrup.
Syrup provided a pleasing, inexpensive substitute for sugar that could be produced locally. It was used in a variety of foods--hoecakes,
baked beans, pork dishes, and Indian pudding--to moisten, sweeten, and hold ingredients together. Cheap in cost but rich in
iron and calcium, syrup is loaded with high-energy carbohydrates. Physicians have long advised its consumption in order to
build up resistance to disease and colds. Sugar cane became a major commercial crop in Louisiana. Southeast Alabama was a
minor producer of commercial sugar cane in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Alabamians planted the cane near streams
where the soil was suitable, but the region was too cold for the crop to be profitable except for local production.
early times, sugar cane has been planted from December to July, often depending on the planter's personal superstitions about
whether the moon is in a growing phase. The land is prepared with a plow, and seeds planted in hills. The stalks are cultivated
to insure proper growth until the seeds in the pods at the top of the stalk became hard and red, indicating maturity. Harvest
usually occurs in October after the corn is reaped and before the first frost.
Before the harvest, syrup making equipment
is cleaned and repaired. Firewood is cut and gathered to boil the juice. The mill is oiled. A mule (or horse or ox) is hitched
to the sweep (a long pole) which is balanced over the mill and connected to the rollers that crush the grain. The draft animal
pulls the sweep, continuously walking in circles. The turning sweep activates the rollers in the mill.
The ripe cane
is cut at the base with a knife, seed pods are sliced off, and leaves and unripe joints are stripped (they can be used as
silage; seeds are used to replant and as poultry feed). The cut cane is quickly transported to the mill so it doesn't dry
out and sour. The cane is 90 percent juice and 10 percent wood. It is hand fed into the rollers which crush the cane into
dry, flaky pulp that is used as field mulch. The colorful green juice flows out a pipe into a burlap-covered barrel which
strains out impurities.
The juice is then poured through cheesecloth, to remove debris, into the boiling vat. The juice
is cooked for 3 to 4 hours; dark, scummy foam appears on the surface, and metal skimmers are used to sweep the surface, lifting
off the foam. The skimmings can be buried. However, they taste good, and can be fed to dogs. They also have been reportedly
used to sweeten moonshine. Also, skimmings can be saved to be boiled and used for community candy pullings.
As the syrup
nears completion, it turns color from green to caramel and thickens. Two-inch-wide bubbles rise from the bottom, indicating
that the syrup is done. Wooded paddlespoons are used to scrape the sorghum from the boiler's bottom, and eager children are
given the paddles to sample the syrup. The boiler is tipped on its side, and the syrup is dipped out with saucepans and poured
through cheesecloth, for a final cleansing, into large cans. It cools and is then put in smaller storage containers (quart
or gallon size). Eighty gallons of juice will make about eight to ten gallons of syrup. The syrup soppers disassemble the
equipment and unharness the mule, giving it a well-earned pat on the neck. Then they wash the boiler and coat it with tallow
so it won't rust. They clean and store the sweep and lead pole and cover the mill with a tarp.
The Civil War devastated
the commercial aspects of southern sugar cane production, which gradually recovered several years later only to be completely
mechanically cultivated, harvested, and processed. Memories of the old-fashioned syrup sopping are expressed in this nineteenth-century
song verse: "The grindin' time was a merry-go-round." The nostalgic process of syrup making is preserved in rural
communities through annual autumn reenactments.