Welcome western romance lovers! Today’s post isn’t about cowboys, horses, or even romance novels. It’s about molasses, that homemade sugar substitute that past generations relied on to satisfy their sweet tooth when real sugar was in short supply.
When I was growing up here in Southeastern Kentucky, one of the biggest and most memorable occasions on the farm was the yearly molasses boiling. Every year, when the first nip of frost was in the air, my uncle and cousins went out into the cane field and cut the crop. Have you ever chewed a section of sugarcane right out of the field? You peel off the tough outside hull then chew the stringy pulp inside to extract the juice. It’s sweet as sugar and it’s delicious!
In anticipation of the cane boiling, my grandmother, mom, and aunt cooked up enough food to feed a small army because the neighbors always showed up and brought their entire families. Sometimes there was even a little pickin’ and singin’ to entertain while the men worked the mill and boiler. Making molasses was another excuse for socializing, plus there was the foam, which wasn’t to be missed, but I’ll get to that later.
|Mule-powered Cane Mill|
Make no mistake, while everyone had a good time during the molasses boiling, it was also a lot of work. First, the cane had to be stripped in the field where it stood. Then the stalks were cut and hauled to the site. My uncle used a big sled pulled by a mule. Once there, the cane was topped (the seed pods removed). Next, it had to be hand fed into a mill where the stalks were crushed to extract the juice. The mill in the picture is very similar to the one my uncle used. It was operated by mule power. The mule walked a continuous circle around the mill, which turned the mechanism that squeezed out the juice. The juice was collected in buckets, then strained through boiled cloth to remove the bits of pulp. This was not a simple matter of pouring the juice through the cloth. It was more like the cloth was filled with as much as a person could handle and then the juice was forcibly squeezed through. Then, the pulp was scraped off before filling the cloth again. Approximately 100 gallons of juice were needed to make one batch of molasses.
After it was strained, the juice was poured into the metal boiling pan. The pan in the picture at left is much more sophisticated than the one we had on the farm. In fact, I’ve never seen one set on a permanent base with its own chimney. The one my uncle used was just the basic pan elevated to the desired height with stones placed at the corners and at mid-point. The normal pan was 7 feet long, 3 feet wide, and about a foot deep. The baffles on the bottom of the pan remain a mystery to me because I don’t know how they worked, and the ones in the bottom of my uncle’s pan looked more like corrugated metal. A fire was kept burning evenly underneath the pan for 6 or 7 hours. During this process, my uncle ran a big wooden paddle back and forth between the baffles to move the juice around and skim off any cane residue that had slipped through the straining process.
Boiling cane juice produces a big head of foam. This was the part we kids—and the adults, too—all looked forward to. Everyone came to the boiling with a big wooden spoon in hand for dipping foam. The foam produced over the thickened, darker syrup was the best. If you ask my mom today about making molasses, she’ll talk at length about how she used to love eating foam.
After 6 or 7 hours of constant, gentle boiling, the juice was transformed. 100 gallons of cane juice produced about 10 gallons of molasses. The big gallon-sized glass jars were stored in a safe place and used throughout the year in a variety of ways. Molasses were eaten, just like jam or jelly, with a meal. They were used to flavor cakes and cookies. My grandmother made delicious stack cakes with molasses flavored biscuit dough and dried apple filling. In a pinch, my uncle even used molasses as a sugar substitute in his moonshine recipe.
One of my mom’s favorite memories from her girlhood is of sitting with her brothers and sisters in front of the fireplace during the winter and making tough jack. They boiled a pan of molasses on the open fire until it thickened to candy consistency. Once it cooled enough to handle, they buttered their hands and divided the thickened molasses between them and started pulling it like taffy. Mom says, the more they pulled, the tough jack became paler and more tender. She never had the patience to pull hers for very long and always ate it before it reached perfection. Vanilla could be added during the boiling stage to add more flavor. One of my uncles sometimes added nut kernels to his and mom says he would pull it and pull it until it was nearly white. Then, she and the others would beg for his because they’d already eaten theirs.
Happy reading and writing!
Devon's web site
Blog - Romance in the Wild West
Photos shared from Wikipedia and freedigitalphotos.net