In this story by One o’the Nine, one of my father’s eight brothers, you will learn how syrup is made from sugar cane. I manage to get a bottle once in awhile when I visit my brother who’s still living in Florida on the “old homeplace.” He makes and bottles it the same old-fashioned way, with the same grinding mill, boiling off method. He makes the day a big community event every year around Thanksgiving. Sometimes he hires a country band to come by to play and sing, and people come from miles around to sit around and watch the syrup cooking, or tell stories and listen to old-fashioned blue grass and country music.
I imagine that only a few people born after the thirties know what cane skimmings are, or where they come from, and velvet beans are also an almost forgotten item that was once a vegetable crop for north Florida farmers. When I was a boy on the farm at the age of about fifteen, one of my older brothers and I had an unforgetful experience with cane skimmings and velvet beans.
During the ’30’s and ’40’s, we grew about three or four acres of sugar cane to be used in making syrup. Syrup and biscuit was a big item in our diet during those years. We had two cane mills and two eighty gallon kettles used in grinding cane and making syrup. It usually took us at least two weeks of steady grinding to get all the sugar cane convered to syrup Our day began at 4:30 in the morning and ran until 9:30 or 10 at night. I remember grinding cane early in the morning when it was so cold the juice wouldn’t separate from the cane. We would build large litered knot fires around the piles of cane to warm it up enough so the juice became liquid and the cane stalks could be run through the mill without crumbling.
In the process of syrup making the cane juice is boiled to evaporate most of the water leaving a liquid sugar, or syrup. When the juice begins to boil, all the trash and impurities associated with cane juice comes to the top and has to be skimmed off and put in barrels until it can be disposed of, usually by feeding it to the livestock. It doesn’t take cane skimmings long to ferment since there is a fair amount of sugar left in them.
One Saturday, about three weeks after cane grinding was over, Papa and Mama went to town and left my older brother and me to pick velvet beans for the next year’s seed. I had never tried to drink fermented cane skimmings before, but I had heard that you could get quite drunk on them. Well, this Saturday I went to the syrup house for something and smelled the sour cane mash and decided I would try drinking some. So I drove a nail in the bottom of the barrel and drew out about a pint bottle full.
There were bees, bugs, frogs, and lots of other things floating on the top, but the bottom was clear and good. After I pulled the nail out of the barrel and filled my bottle I reared back and took a big swig. I was really surprised because it tasted kind of sweet and didn’t burn at all. I drank most of the bottle and then refilled it, then plugged the hole with the nail to keep the barrel from emptying. I put the pint bottle in my back overalls pocket and went to get some croker sacks to put velvet beans in.
On the way my older brother saw the bottle in my pocket and wanted to know what I had in it. I lied and told him I had a bottle of water to carry to the velvet bean field. My brother somehow knew I was lying and began a scuffle to get the bottle. I was afraid if I told him he would tell Papa and I would get my behind tanned, so I quickly reasoned if I could get him to drink some then he wouldn’t tell. I told him I had the cane skimmings and they tasted gooood. He took a swig from the bottle and licked his lips, then drained the bottle.
We then went back to the barrel and filled two more bottles and headed for the velvet bean field. We picked about a peck of beans and then we drank all the skimmings in our bottles. We were both feeling tipsy by this time, so we sat down and leaned against a big pine stump that stood in the field. We both went to sleep and didn’t wake up until almost sundown. We hurried home with our few beans and drumped them on top of the pile in the storehouse that we had previously picked.
The Lord was watching over us I know because Papa and Mama didn’t get back from town until after dark, so Papa didn’t get to see the small amount of beans we picked. I don’t believe he ever knew we got on a cheap drunk on cane skimmings. Neither of us ever drank any cane skimmings again.
Postscript: Should you wonder what “litered” wood is, it comes from the trunk, limbs and roots of pine heartwood, and most likely has been charred and dried out by fast traveling wood fires. It’s very heavy as all the light sapwood has rotted or burned away. The beauty of it is that it lights easily even when it’s damp, so it’s great for starting fires quickly, and then piling on slower burning woods.
The older brother in the story was my father, which means this incident would have taken place not long before he ran away from home to marry the girl who would become my mother. Making syrup was a yearly event. Everyone in the family pitched in to help out. I fed the cane stalks into the mill to squeeze the juice into pails, or sometimes Daddy let me skim for awhile. Would you like to see syrup making in session? In spite of the work the long day was fun. Neighbors stopped by to have a cup of cane juice or to watch and talk, maybe buy a few bottles of syrup to take home. The aroma in the air was sublime in spite of the stickiness that collected in your hair, and at the end of the day there was enough syrup to share and last until the next cane grinding, same time, same place, next year. And guess what Mama always made for supper whenever we finally got home? Yup! Pancakes and sausages newly made cane syrup!