Cane was grown primarily for the production of sugar. People soon realized that syrup could be made by slowly boiling the juice in large iron pots. Cane syrup was perfect for pouring over hot biscuits, pancakes, couche couche, cornbread, and to make delicious gateau de sirop.
Many families still enjoy eating fresh French bread, peanut butter, and Steen’s syrup. It is also used as a sweetener for baked goods, as a meat glaze, and as an ingredient for baked beans and pecan pies. I can still remember Grandma using cane syrup for popcorn balls and taffy candy.
Cane juice can also be fermented into a beer. Cane syrup is a true southern food tradition.
One of the early commercial producers of cane syrup was Charley Steen of Vermilion Parish, who in 1910 collected sugarcane juice to make syrup. At first it was a difficult process. Mr. Steen and family members had to peel the cane, which was then brought to a syrup mill, where the juice was mashed with animal-powered rollers and heated in large cauldrons by burning wood. It took seven to 10 gallons of raw juice to make one gallon of syrup.
In the early 1900s many sugarcane mills dotted southern Louisiana landscapes. As one travels in the area, a common sight is the remains of an abandoned sugar cane mill. The last one that I can remember in the Arnaudville area was the Singleton mill, but there were probably some in every area of South Louisiana.
The mule-drawn mills, and later steam-powered ones, could produce a couple barrels of syrup a day at most. These small mills are at severe risk since there are only few producers of the traditional pure cane syrup left – the most notable being Steen’s of Abbeville. The product is easy to spot on store shelves by its bright yellow label.
According to the C. S. Steen Syrup Mill Web site, the mill still uses the same recipe and still makes the pure cane syrup the old fashion way – open-kettle.
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