Every Thanksgiving I start thinking about all of the things we did growing up. All of the things I’ve learned from my elders, the skills we’ve been fortunate enough to pass down many generations, and the experiences that most people never get to have. This is just a taste of what it was like for me growing up in a small farming community.
On the weekend before Thanksgiving, the men in my family get together to strip sugar cane for the making of syrup. The cane stalks grow much higher than I stand at five feet seven inches. They are thicker than a golfball is round. The white powder sticks to everything as they strip the leaves from the stalk and chop it off at the base with machetes. This was something that my dad allowed me to help with, in the extent of stacking it next to the mill and on the trailer. Once we finished, they would cut sections of the sugar cane off and strip the outside off for us to chew the juice out of the flesh. The fibers of the cane would get stuck in our teeth, but this was always our favorite part of this day.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is when the hard work gets put in. It’s gotten easier with modifications over the last few years, but there’s still a lot of manual labor done. The cane that was cut the weekend before is ready to be put through the mill to get the juice for boiling. One person drives the tractor (always red) round and round in an endless circle, turning the rollers to work the cane stalks through. We would put the end of the stalks in two, sometimes three at a time. This slow process took hours as we fed the cane through to get enough juice to fill a fifty-five gallon drum. The juice had to run through a cheese cloth strainer into the drum to get out as much of the “trash” and impurities as we could. This day was also butchering day… A tradition started way before my time, a goat is chosen in the spring to fatten up and is dubbed Thanksgiving. This is a touchy topic for some, so I’ll leave it as it is, but yes. We butcher a goat for Thanksgiving lunch. Always have according to the elders in my family.
Finally Thanksgiving is here! The men arrive at the farm at daybreak to get the cooking process for the syrup started. The juice is transferred from the drum to the syrup pot. The base around it is now a metal covering to make the process go a little faster, but it use to be brick that aged from use to the point of not being functional anymore. The fire pit underneath is lit, now converted to a propane burner instead of a wood-burning fire. I can remember as a kid having to run out of the shed to rake the fire from the pit to cool down the pot, and then having to shove it back in only moments later to bring it back to a boil. The cooking process takes HOURS to complete, so I’ll speed it up for you. As the juice boils, the remaining impurities float to the surface and boil over to the edge of the pot. Two men skim the top of the boiling juice and dip it with “spoons” crafted from long wooden stick (broom handles maybe?) and large metal bowls. One has holes in it to strain the juice and the other has a solid bottom for scooping and stirring. We would have to wipe the sides of the bowl to get the trash off, but now they use a large metal ring fitted to the size of the bowl with rags draped over it to catch the trash. This has saved time and fingers from being burned. At around 2:30 pm, it is finally time to test the syrup with a hydrometer. Some of the syrup is poured into a metal container with a handle and the hydrometer is dropped in to float and measure the moisture still in the syrup. Once it hits the sweet spot of around thirty-four, it moves on to the next test. The saucer test is one that my great-grandfather trusted with every ounce of his syrup-making ability. A small amount is dripped in the center of the saucer. It’s given a few minutes to cool, and then the saucer is tilted to do a sort of run test. If it runs too quickly, it boils longer. If it runs smooth and slow, it’s perfect and ready to be taken up.
Once the syrup is finished, it is taken out of the pot and put through another cheese cloth strainer into a metal container with a spout. It is left here to cool, sometimes overnight. Once cooled, the spout is opened to let the liquid gold flow into mason jars. How many jars filled depends on the amount of syrup that was made from the juice. Each year is different depending on the amount of rain, the size of the sugar cane, and the quality of the juice. To end this day, we enjoy freshly made sugar cane syrup with warm biscuits or pancakes.
I tell and retell these stories to my husband and oldest daughter because they have only been able to experience syrup making with the modified ways, not the old-school wiping and wood fires. We always worry about when certain traditions will fade away. I really hope and pray that this is one my children get to experience for many years to come. What traditions does your family have?