The traditional way of grinding ribbon cane into the finished product of cane syrup is to “walk” a mule or horse (tethered to a large pole) around a drum as the syrup master feeds stalks into a rolling mill.
The juice is pressed into a tub or keg covered with cheesecloth to catch the solid materials.
The syrup master always keeps a watchful eye on the proceedings.
After being collected, the juice is transferred to the “cooking pan” in a nearby shed. This “pan” is mounted on a rock or brick base with a fire underneath. Wood is added from holes on the side, and a chimney on one end keeps air flowing over the fire. The skill and discrimination of the syrup master determines when the final product is ready to be “poured up”. The final result is a staple of South Georgia cuisine: pure can syrup ready to dress up biscuits, cornbread, and almost anything else that requires a little sweetness.
Jesse Bookhardt wrote: It is great to see the old cane mill operation again. Back in the mid-1950’s, our neighbor, Mr. Ed Ray, of Denton, Georgia always invited some neighbors over to his farm when his family made syrup. The event was referred to as a “Cane Grinding” and was a favorite social event that enhanced friendships and made some sweet memories. In a sense, it served the same social purpose as a “Peanut Boiling.”
When folk arrived they were kindly greeted and invited to partake of some of the raw juice which was being squeezed from the cane stalks by the mill into a large drum. The juice was green in appearance and the barrel would always be covered with Yellow Jackets and Honey Bees trying to extract their share. We would removed a long necked gourd dipper from the mill’s frame and take a few slugs down. Careful to avoid trips to the outhouse, we only drank a moderate amount. As the juice was cooked over the old furnace kettle, it tuned dark amber and reduced in volume. The syrup maker was the one who determined when it was ready to be pour-up. Syrup making was an art and it took an experienced person to make good quality syrup. The boiling, rolling liquid was a sight to see and left impressions on most that have stayed with them a life time.
I have very fond memories of this operation and was always taken with the unique sweet smell that permeated a hazy mist that surrounded the mill. Brian thanks for sharing this historic scene. Lately I have grown a few stalks on our farm in Northeast Alabama just for the memories and to see if sugar cane will survive that far north. So far it has. Most people of the area are familiar with sorghum syrup.
Photographed at Harvest Days in Old Talbot, Patsiliga Plantation, 2013
For more on sugar cane and syrup making, visit Southern Matters.