Cane syrup runs through Bill Outlaw’s veins right along with the blood of his ancestors. It’s a part of his story, and like many good stories, it began generations ago, in the fields of his daddy and grandfather and great-grandfather, on a Georgia farm that is still in the Outlaw family. Bill can’t talk about sugar cane without harkening back to the past, and the Outlaw story is as rich and gritty as any historical southern fiction novel, full of farmers and strong women, preachers and ne’er-do-wells.
As we looked over his cane fields, Bill told us that sugar caning provided his ancestors with a bit of sweet pleasure during the depths of the depression, and they enjoyed the harvest as much as we do today. But sugar has its dark side. The Florida panhandle was once part of a triangle of trade that stretched from Europe to Africa and the tropics, and cane sugar was a commodity. In its heyday, sugar cane created great fortunes for landowners and broke the backs and spirits of people that worked the fields, all to satisfy the sweet tooth of Europeans with money to spend. Bill told me that the slaves working on sugar cane plantations in Louisiana–where conditions were worst of all–lived an average of eight years. He gave us a quick demonstration of cutting the strong canes, one by one. My husband, Eric, and friend, Steve Asbell, harvested a few of the tall spires of cane with a machete, stripping the leaves from the canes and setting them into a pile to be carted up to the kitchen. They were soon grateful that our host had harvested the bulk of his crop before our arrival.
A dirt drive winds past sugar cane, groves of citrus, and fig and banana trees that Bill and his wife, Nedra, have planted over the years. The Outlaw homestead is nestled in a thicket of majestic live oaks, magnolias, and chestnuts that thrive in this temperate climate, and I feel my adrenaline surge as we park near the kitchen house. Bill, a retired biology professor with a solid presence and a twinkle in his piercing eyes, is a passionate gardener and a collector and historian of all things related to cane syrup. The lawn that rolls from the kitchen house to the garden by the main house is a fascinating outdoor museum of sugar cane grinders, plows, kettles and tools. Nedra’s passions run to gardening, cooking and decorating. Their tidy home features a gorgeous custom kitchen that she designed, and her decorative painting skills are evident throughout. Since it’s already late afternoon, Nedra urges us to head up to the kitchen house, where the action is set to begin.
There are a few rituals that stir a rise of ancient excitement in a southerner, and making cane syrup is one of them. The alchemy of growing the cane, cutting it and grinding it to extract its sweet juice, and then cooking the juice down into syrup is transformative to the sugar cane and to the people involved in the process. We are here for the final stages—grinding the freshly harvested stalks to extract their sweet juices and boiling the juice down to amber perfection.
Bill already had the stalks washed and stacked outside the kitchen house. He grows several varieties of cane, each prized for a different quality that it brings to the syrup. It wasn’t long before the men had a rhythm going, selecting the stalks and feeding them into the grinder that Bill had refurbished and fitted to meet his needs. As the woody canes were pressed through the grinder, juice poured from its mouth through a strainer and into a clean five gallon bucket. Bill shows me how to measure the Brix level of the cane juice, and we test the different varieties of cane, recording the results. The Brix level measures the amount of sugar in the produce, and Bill is pleased that this crop measures just right for his syrup.
The residual cane stalks feed out through the back of the grinder. The spent stalks, called pomace, are composted and used to enrich the soil and fertilize the gardens come spring. Nothing goes to waste.
As the hundreds of sugar canes are fed through the old Golden mill, Bill hoists the buckets full of juice into the kitchen and strains the juice through fine cotton and into a huge steel drum. This step cleans the sweet juice and helps to remove any dirt and debris. The juice will be cleaned many more times during the cooking process, which we’ll start in the morning.
It takes several hours for all the juice to be extracted, and as Bill continues working in his kitchen lab, we wander down to the house to have a bite to eat and to visit with Nedra. She’s fixed pinwheel sandwiches, and spinach balls and pecan bread, and I’ve brought ricotta cheese and pickled Brussels sprouts that complement her spread. We have a taste of the Noble wine that the couple produces from their muscadine grapes, and I find it quite delicious. Nedra shows us some of their family treasures—a grandmother’s butter churn, Greek vases that were gifts from Bill’s students. Bill stays in the kitchen house, measuring and recording, cleaning his equipment and readying everything for the next day. We say our goodnights and drive home to Monticello and collapse into bed.
Morning comes soon, and we drive back to the Outlaws in pouring rain, tornado warnings blaring from the radio. We pile into the kitchen house, and Bill has fired up the kettle, which is filled with the watery cane juice. It’s not long before the heat causes the juice to begin foaming, and we use a skimmer to remove the foamy impurities that rise to the top of the juice.
The kitchen house fills with the tangy aroma of the cane juice as it boils away in the 60-gallon kettle. Bill and Eric tuck clean cotton rags around the lip of the kettle, and we watch as the bubbling juice rises over the lip of the cauldron and pours through the cotton and back into the kettle. This process filters the juice over and over again, and the edge of the kettle is wiped down and the cotton replaced several times during the cooking process.
It takes a while for the huge vat of cane juice to cook down, and we have time to devour the flaky biscuits and venison sausage that Nedra brings for us. Nedra tells me the venison sausage was a gift from a local hunter, and it’s delicious and perfectly seasoned. I drizzle my sausage biscuit with cane syrup and inhale a cup of rich, dark coffee. I would have wandered out to inspect the Meyer lemons and Meiwa kumquats and Satsumas that were weighing down the trees outside the kitchen house, but the pouring rain dampened my enthusiasm just a bit. And I didn’t want to miss anything in the kitchen. So instead, I poked around, checking out Bill’s winemaking laboratory—another activity he favors. I admire his organizational skills and his spotless stainless sinks and tools. Sparkling glass jugs of wine and mead made from Outlaw honey are aging, carefully labeled by date and fruit content.
The tangy scent of the cooking syrup turns into caramel and as it cooks down, I sense a change in Bill’s attention and activity level. He walks us quickly through our roles in the bottling process and begins paying strict attention to the temperature. Steve and I glance at each other with concern—what are we supposed to do? How? But Bill’s attention is on the syrup, and Eric is questioning him about how the boiling process alters the sugar molecules. I try to commit Bill’s instructions to memory and watch as Bill tests the syrup for consistency. This is a critical part of the syrup-making process, and I recognize its similarity to making jam. If the syrup is overcooked and begins to crystallize, it can be ruined, and a year’s worth of effort gone to waste.
A few minutes later, the excitement level rises right along with the temperature of the syrup, and Bill proclaims it is ready! The rich, sweet golden syrup flakes beautifully, and the furnace is shut down. Fans pull the heat out of the kitchen, and Bill scoops the syrup from the kettle and strains it one last time through layers of cotton into a huge stainless urn. He wants it out of the kettle and away from the heat as quickly as possible so that it stops cooking.
We set up an assembly line, and Steve feeds sterilized bottles to Bill, who fills them with the hot syrup. I cap the bottles and pack them six to a case. We record the bottling time and flip each case over for ten minutes. The hot syrup will insure that the caps are sterile. Working as quickly as possible, we fill all the bottles that Bill has prepared. We’re finished, and the beautiful syrup gleams as it cools down on the counter. We toast our syrup-making adventure with a taste of sweet success. It’s delicious!
Our sugar cane experience is one that has been repeated thousands of times on homesteads and farms all over the south and in other parts of the world as well. Neighbor helps neighbor, one generation teaches the next, and our emotional connection to history, family, land and tradition is preserved right along with the harvest. Growing, preparing and enjoying authentic foods is as critical to preserving our culture and history as any fine piece of art, or historic home. Sticky and proud, we say our thanks and goodbyes to our new friends. We load up our car with fragrant fruit from the orchards and bottles of syrup as prized as any treasure ever found. And as we drive down the dirt drive and Steve closes the gate behind us, I hold on tightly to this experience until I can pour it out on my page.