The Southern tradition of making syrup
Photography by Robert Clark
South Carolina is a state noteworthy for its history and tradition. Even in this fast-paced technological age, many hold firm to tradition. Little known, but still practiced in South Carolina, is the process of raising cane for the production of syrup.
J. Carlyle Sitterson wrote a book, Sugar Country: The Cane Sugar Industry in the South, 1753-1950, that specifically looks at sugar production and manufacturing in Louisiana — which, before the Civil War, was providing more than 90 percent of America’s domestic sugar. Sugar cane prefers a consistently warm climate. South Carolina is ironically considered a little “too far north” to yield large crops of sugar cane because the state’s winter does include cold spells. As a result, most of America’s sugar cane production today is centered in Hawaii, Texas, Louisiana and Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; yet, there are still a few South Carolina farms that raise cane for their own use and for minimal retail sales.
Before the grinding process can start, each stalk of sugar cane is cut by hand using a machete. William Dixon hand loads the stalks into a mill, forcing the juice out of the sugar cane into a barrel.
The Civil War practically wiped out sugar cane production in the South, greatly affecting the crop’s success. Instead, much of this country’s sugar was then imported raw from the Indies and the Caribbean and refined in the North. During World War I and World War II, there was a shortage of sugar that prompted some South Carolina farmers to either increase already existing crops of sugar cane or begin the cultivation of sugar cane.
Although it is unknown just how many individuals in South Carolina grow sugar cane, at least a half dozen or so advertise cane syrup for sale year-round or periodically. The Southern Syrupmakers Association is a resource for people already involved in cane syrup making, or those interested in becoming involved.
For John Catoe, owner of Blizzard Branch Milling and Syrup Company in Middendorf, South Carolina, raising cane and making syrup is just something he grew up with. He says that everyone he knew growing up in the rural area had at least a few rows of cane planted for their consumption.
“It was difficult to get sugar during the war, so growing their own cane was how people got sugar to sweeten things,” says John. He calls growing about eight rows of cane and making a few hundred gallons of syrup a year a “hobby.” His farm, which has been in his family for generations, also produces stone ground grits from corn. In years past, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, he would open his farm up to the public so they could experience the process of syrup making and sample pancakes served with the syrup. Upward of 800 people visited the farm each year.
After the stalks are pressed and strained — once through burlap and twice through 400 mesh filters — John Catoe (above) with Blizzard Branch Milling and Syrup Company, uses a 500-gallon preheating tank with a propane boiler to cook the water out of the cane for about four hours, leaving only syrup.
By Thanksgiving, the process of syrup making is usually complete. There are basically four stages: growing the cane, cutting the cane, grinding the juice and cooking the syrup. He explains that sugar is planted by the stalk — not by the seed — and comes back annually, unless there is a hard, long freeze. Raising cane requires consistent watering, as sugar cane is 90 percent water and 10 percent sugar. At the Blizzard Branch farm, sugar cane is cut by hand using a machete. Procedures involved in cooking the sugar are extensive. Juice is strained through burlap and it typically takes about four hours to cook the water out of the cane so that only the syrup remains.
“We cook ours in an 80-gallon antique kettle,” says John.
Syrup is then bottled and has a shelf life of about two years unopened. Opened, syrup can be refrigerated and used for six months to a year.
Marvin Russ grows cane on about a half acre of his property near Florence. A fifth generation owner of the farm, the 73-year-old makes just enough to enjoy and give away, with a few gallons left over to sell. He used to make more than 5,000 gallons, but making so much to sell became a burden. Plus, he says that he expects no one in his family to take over cane syrup making when he passes.
Fellow sugar cane planter Kenneth Stevens says that neither his son nor his sons-in-law are interested in taking up cane syrup making when he is gone either. The 82-year-old learned how to make the syrup from his grandfather. Kenneth grows enough on his property near Orangeburg for 250 gallons of juice. He explains that it takes 10 gallons of juice to make one gallon of syrup. He cooks the juice in an old 60-gallon kettle. He sells syrup by the quart for $7 to $8.
Marvin says he still enjoys being involved in all stages of the process — carrying on a tradition that has been passed down on a former cotton plantation that was 6,000 acres but has dwindled to 300. Besides offering cane syrup, Marvin’s farm has made barbecue sauce and sold molasses and collard greens. He sells some goods at the South Carolina State Fair annually and shares that cane syrup is not just good … it is good for you (it is especially high in potassium).
John maintains that his syrup is 100 percent cane and says that he never tires of it. “We don’t add anything to it,” he says, “and I feel like it would be sacrilegious not to eat it!”
Opposite, top: The concentrated juice is then cooked for approximately two hours in an 80-gallon antique kettle. Once the syrup reaches the correct temperature, Tommy McKinnon and John Catoe take a density measurement. Bottom left: Bobby Oakley. Bottom middle: a density measurement reading. Bottom right: Tommy McKinnon is test tasting the syrup.
Kenneth adds, “It’s equally as good to me as maple syrup. I especially like to eat it on biscuits and hot cakes.”
When family gathers at Blizzard Branch for holidays and special occasions, they typically leave carrying at least one bottle of cane syrup. For more information visit BlizzardBranch.com or Like them on Facebook: Russ Brothers Farms | Old Plantation Syrup.