Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Raising Cane and Making Molasses

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.

Cane Field
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.

Boiler Pan
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.

Making tough jack sounds like it would have been a good activity to keep the young people busy and happy while they were cooped up in the soddie or cabin during those long prairie winters, doesn’t it? What other activity can you think of that would have kept the youngsters entertained during those cold nights on the homestead in the old west?

Happy reading and writing!

Devon's web site
Blog - Romance in the Wild West

Photos shared from Wikipedia and


Caroline Clemmons said...

Devon, my mom used to talk about her uncle making molasses.She also loved the foam. Once when Hero and I were driving in rural East Texas, we saw a family making molasses. We wanted to stop but didn't. My mom also talked about chewing on the stalks. Occasionally in the loal grocery store and fruit stand, there will be cane stalks for sale.

Devon Matthews said...

I've seen cane for sale at fruit stands, too, Caroline, but it's been a long time. I feel like I was fortunate to be born in time to get a glimpse and experience a little of the old ways. They sure have disappeared. Thanks for stopping by. :)

Ellen O'Connell said...

That is really cool, Devon. I have questions. Is the cane the same sugar cane that produces sugar? I always thought that grew only in the really warm climes, not so much in the U.S. And if it's the same, why molasses and not sugar? Is sugar much harder to make?

And how do you get the juice from the cane the mule stomps? From the picture, any juice would just soak into the ground. And does anyone worry about how dirty the mules hooves are? Hoof covers?

Gerri Bowen said...

That was a very interesting post, Devon. I would think story telling would be a good winter activity. Or telling the children about their ancestors.

Devon Matthews said...

Ellen, yes, you sure can make sugar from this same cane that grows here in the US. It just requires a couple more processes past the molasses stage to get it to cystalline form. The old farmers either didn't have the equipment or the knowledge to get it there, so they did what was available to them and made molasses.

The second part of your question gave me a chuckle. Take a closer look at the picture. The stalks the mule is walking on are chaff, the stuff that was left after the came was squeezed. The cane was put through a mill to extract the juice. The mule was attached to a long pole and walked round and round to turn the mechanism inside the mill. If you look closely at the picture, you'll see the juice pouring from the mill into a tub on the ground. I'm sure there were a lot of impurities in the raw juice, but 6 or 7 hours of constant boiling took care of them.

Thanks for stopping by and I enjoyed the questions. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Forgot to say, if you click on the picture, it will enlarge a bit.

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Gerri! Yes, storytelling was an art form back then. My uncle was well known for his much embellished tales and I can remember him sitting in front of the fireplace with several neighbor men on any given winter night and keeping them spellbound while he talked.

Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving me a comment. :)

Ellen O'Connell said...

Ah, I couldn't get the pic to enlarge, but by squinting I did see the juice pouring from the spout.

Television didn't come to our house until I was about 5 and I never got as attached to it as kids born to it. I remember learning my primitive knitting skills and trying to learn crocheting as things that passed time. So did a lot of things like gardening that now would be considered work and then were just part of life.

Ciara Gold said...

Wow, what a great post. I've never heard of tough jack but my mouth is now watering. I love molasses on my cornbread. I think that's a southern thing too.

Jacquie Rogers said...

A lot of our family recipes use molasses, but I've never seen it other than in the bottle from the grocery store so this post was really interesting.

One thing you brought up that I miss about the olden days is how we used to all get together for harvests, canning, and such. Yes, we worked hard, but we always had huge meal and some tunes to go along with it. It was a time when you got to see everyone and catch up with gossip. And at the end of the day, we always made ice cream. The anticipation while turning that crank is just indescribable. OMG, that stuff was to die for!!!

Devon Matthews said...

Those are all good suggetions. When I was a kid, I don't ever remember beging bored like kids are these days. They're more interested in the cyber world than what's going on around them. Thanks, Ellen! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Ciara, I've never eaten tough jack, but it would be something to try. Nowadays, we've got everything under the sun stuck behind our cabinet doors and don't have to work or get resourceful in order to get a treat. Sometimes I wonder if we're any better off. Thanks for stopping by! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Jacquie, that was the thing about the times prior to tv and our modern tech world. Visiting was a must. People actually visited each other, and they stayed most of the day, not just zip in and out. They had to visit in person because no one I knew had a phone. We didn't have a phone until we moved to Ohio. When my grandmother got her first phone, it was a party line. Now that was a hoot. Thanks for stopping by! :)

Alison E. Bruce said...

I've heard about the process of turning molasses to sugar, but never the way molasses was made from cane in the first place. Skip the part about milling the cane, and you've described sugaring off to make maple syrup - including the social activities that went with the work.

The sugaring off is a big tradition here in Canada. Some farms open up to the public for tours and buggy rides with still warm maple syrup available for sale with other maple products and sometimes home baking. The University of Guelph Arboretum makes an edutainment event of it. Judging by the roadside signs, most of farmers around Guelph produce maple syrup, maple sugar and maple candy.

Instead of making a taffy-like candy, the boiled down syrup is poured on snow or ice shavings, then twisted onto a stick to make a maple sucker.

I once got lost on the road from Toronto to Ottawa and discovered a huge log cabin restaurant that served pancakes and home-grown maple syrup all day. Inside was one big room with long tables and bench seats with a kitchen set up at one end. All they served was pancakes, sausages and bacon. Naturally, there were maple products by the cash so you could buy the syrup you enjoyed with your meal. It was wonderful and I never could find the place again.