Some old school skills may need revisiting

We were fortunate to be invited to a long-standing family tradition this week. It’s not our family, though they feel like it now. And it’s not our tradition, though we plan to add it to them, God willing, going forward.

We were invited to a cane press. And since neither of us has ever seen that done here in the south, though I’ve seen it in Jamaica, and we’ve certainly seen the general method on documentaries, both my husband and I were anxious to take up the invitation.

The man who invited us is a treasure already. He made the Excursion like new after our encounter with a tractor trailer on I-95 last February. And then he not only took our old Aerostar off our hands (though we loved the old workhorse) — he made it run again and it continues to be a workhorse for him. Their family was smack-dab in the middle of the EF4 tornado that went through their town a few years ago, and they all have scars and stories. Lovely people that they are, they shouldn’t. Tragedy and drama visit most of us at some time in our lives and theirs came in torrents.

But no matter what happens, the Saturday after Thanksgiving every year, they press and boil sugar cane.

In the old days, that would be a family’s “sweets” for the rest of the year. And the fact that we can grow cane in our area to do that is a plus. One of the young old hands (oxymoron intentional) told us there are probably about 1000 families in South Carolina who do it. There are a few commercial pressings too.

And, since it’s the south, and it is something done by men — there are bragging rights involved. In fact, while it was going on, the UPS guy stopped and told some of the ladies that his family had done it the day before. He said they’d pressed 32 gallons. More on that in a minute.

From South Carolina, along the top of Florida and as far west as eastern New Mexico, people grow cane for this purpose. We’ve bought pure cane syrup made in Alabama, and Louisiana, and now we have a large jar and a small jar of some we watched being made.

I can’t say we helped make it, because it’s a well-oiled machine of people who have done it for decades, and their protégées. It’s a real skill, where an eye for the fire, the syrup and all the little nuances make it happen right.

We did go-fer stuff and got to eat some good food over the course of the half day that it took.

We could come at 4 am, when the men started the pressing. At 6 am, when they started the fire, and the women started cooking. Or at 9, when breakfast was ready.

It was a cold morning, in the 50s, and we got there in time for home cured bacon, handmade sausage, scrambled eggs, French toast and a big pot of out-of-this-world grits. (Jim Dandy, y’all, a subsidiary of Martha White flour.)

The guys had pressed 600 stalks of sugar cane through an antique cast-iron press run by one of the 5 old tractors lined up in the field. (The young boys were tasked with the used-stalks-into-the-trailer, to be hauled off later. Everyone has a job.)

Those 600 stalks were mostly grown by the family, though they did say they bought another field from someone else to add to the press. Pressed, they made 80 gallons of cane juice.

That seems like a lot, but over the course of the cooking into syrup, after 6 or 7 hours of VERY CAREFUL COOKING — it made 8 gallons of cane syrup.

A beautiful, golden sweet elixir that we had on biscuits Sunday morning. My husband’s superb biscuits. Made with the aforementioned Martha White, though he prefers White Lily. We all have our preferences.

When we arrived, around 9, the juice was at the top of the kettle, and the smell it had cooking was sort of fresh, grassy aroma, with just a hint of the caramel to come. In the early hours the men were stirring and skimming with big metal colanders on long poles. Not really colanders, but that’s the easiest picture. The juice is full of organic bits that have to be kept moving and then pulled out and strained off. Just a constant motion with variations.

At one point there was a frame lined with screen and cheesecloth as the clarifying intensified. At various times the steam was so intense they couldn’t see the surface, and would skim it with the cloths. Oh yeah, the cloths — clean white dishcloths, basically, dozens of them. For everything from clearing the steam to see, skimming the foam off the top — in varying degrees at different times, too, at one point involving many hands passing, wringing, passing back. There’s also a concentric collar around the kettle — did I tell you the “kettle” is built on concrete, out of brick, with different actual iron kettles that sit down in. Then these separate metal collars which catch the moisture layers….it’s very simple, yet pretty complicated! So there are more of the clean dishtowels inside the collar around the edge.

Hot stuff, too. And molten when it gets “right.”

We took lots of pictures. All of us did. Even the family members who are doing it, realize it is a dying skill and we all want to document it. There were at least 5 generations there, and while the youngest may remember it like I remember the last icehouse — it’s hard to say if they will continue it. There were 3 generations doing it Saturday, though, and it was good to see the 30-somethings very involved.

One of the experts was a younger guy, who was great about sharing information. He’d learned it from the older guys around the kettle, but you could tell he’d developed his own passion for it, and he was enthusiastic about sharing what he knew.

John never left the kettle. He watched every minute of it, talked to all the guys cooking, and by the time it was almost syrup, he was part of the line, wringing dishtowels and keeping it going.

I tried to stay out of the way, taking pictures and watching and helping where I could. I thought of lending a hand to the bottling, but saw that those ladies had their places and were ready with their aprons. It was interesting to see what equipment was rolled in and out. There was a whole hog cooking the whole time under the kitchen shed, so I was surprised when the teenagers wheeled the cooker into the next yard and replaced it with a commercial stainless counter — bring on the cases of mason jars! (That’s a generic now, “mason jar,” honest.)

When you’ve got 4 or 5 generations living within a few acres, you’ve got everything you need, even if all the sheds are new since the tornado, (and some of the houses.) Even if the beauty parlor disappeared ENTIRELY, every shred of it, and the a family photograph showed up in a yard in Summerville (75 miles away.) Even if the row of pine trees that shaded yards are now a long line of waist high stumps…there’s still 5 tractors, three cookers and a commercial rolling counter. Oh, and the handcrafted spigot kettle, a very nifty contraption indeed.

Because when it’s syrup, it has to come out of the 100 gallon kettle into smaller ones, and then into the mason jars. So everyone can take some home!

Ladled out of the big kettle into a two-man kettle, into the standing kettle with the nifty spigot.

Then the ladies took over and filled cases of mason jars that had been presterilized, heated again on the hot bricks of the kettle apron, and the line was working. Spigot, handoff, cover, wipe, line up upside down. Like clockwork.

I was watching with someone’s grandmother, a lovely woman who lost people to tornados and COVID, and she said their pastor came one year, watched for hours, and built a sermon on it. I could picture it. The old men who each had his own spin on the “kettle” system, the heat, the time, the rags, the skimming. The color and size of the bubbles.

Then the women and their heirarchy and warm interaction. The kids of all ages running in and out, but getting seen to if there were problems. Eyes on things at all times, but in a good way. The smoker was going the whole time and outdoor kitchen was well planned. You get to do that when it all blows away. Using an old fridge here, a sink there. It’s what we do to make it work. When you know how things work. Scouting what’s left in the shed that didn’t blow away.

And that’s the point of the story, I guess, knowing how things work. How to fix trucks and make cane syrup. When to recycle and rebuild. Never giving up on any of it. How do you? People who grow their own cane can tell you a bit about picking up and getting on. After a tornado, or a fire or an apocalypse, I think. Practical skills. Growing food. Preserving it. Killing the hog and smoking the meat. Hunting, which several people there, including at least two women, had done that week and were going to do again in the morning.

Skills. And crafts, like making cane syrup. Or maple syrup. Grinding corn for grits and flour. Practical skills.

There are millions of people who have no idea how any of that is done. We had guests at the farm in Italy who honestly didn’t know that eggs came from chickens. So…..

And picking up and getting on is something all of us may be doing down the road, depending on how well we handle some of the things going on in our world.


  1. Oh my goodness! It is like I was there. Living in a rural area in the south I was swept away by your excellent account of this process and the culture vibe that went with it. I have never seen this process but have heard stories from some who have. So true that the old ways and those who can do these things are near extinct. That is sad.You are a master story teller. This is a goodun.

  2. Maple syrup in the North and cane syrup in the South. Never knew!! Clearly more of a process than tapping maples when winter days warm and the sap is boiled down. I know northerners who have a one man sugar shack so this cane syrup is clearly a group effort. Love the multigenerational piece where stories are passed along and there’s a place for everyone in the process!
    Great description! All that was missing was the fragrance of the boil!!!

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