The alarm on my phone insistently assaults my ears as I rub the sleep from my eyes. I haven’t had to get out of bed this early on a Saturday for a long time. Even my little buddy Scout raises his head slowly and opens one eye as if to say, “Dude, it’s still dark outside.” But I’m excited to get out of house even if it is a rough start. Today I get to do something that I have not been a part of for over thirty years. Today my cousins are making molasses.
My big blue truck rolls down the long gravel driveway. I neglected to ask what part of the farm they’ll be set up on but it wasn’t long until I heard the familiar rumble of the tractor’s diesel engine. Daniel and his son Matthew have been already been working for quite a while.
Daniel’s father Wesley was a master farmer in my opinion. As I questioned Matthew about his renewed interest in making molasses I learned that my great uncle Wesley used to make 300 gallons of molasses per year and one year he produced 500 hundred gallons of the sweet treat. To put that in perspective, it takes about 10 gallons of Sorghum juice to make a gallon of molasses. Which means that he had to process about 3K gallons of raw product.
In real life Daniel makes it look easy. That’s what I lifetime of experience does for you.
Matthew says that his interest in molasses was rekindled by stories of his grandmother’s molasses cookies. I remember those cookies. Every year at family reunion and again at Christmas. As I read Matthew’s answers to my questions I can smell and taste those sweet spices from my own childhood memories. Nothing from a factory could ever compare to food made with ingredients that was raised and processed on your own land.
Matthew became intrigued the process because his dad (Daniel) started raising sorghum to help suppliment the crop of another farm in the area. If the sorghum wasn’t needed then it could be fodder for the animals they raise. Even when they strip the leaves from the cane they’re fed to animals. Nothing goes to waste. Matthew and I both have concerns about how well most people in the world would survive if they had to go back to living off the land. It’s one thing to raise a few veggies in the garden but it’s another thing entirely to provide proper nutrition for your whole family plus the animals.
Our ancestors were able to provide everything for themselves but they didn’t do it all by themselves. The comunity was extended family and no one branch could provide it all. One branch might specialize in sorghum, another might raise corn and still others would be good making clothes or welding equipment. The cane mill was built in a factory with cast iron parts but gear system that allows the tractor to power it was custom made.
While they were working they told me that one molasses maker uses a similar mill but it’s powered by a horse walking in circles.
I asked Matthew if making the molasses made him feel closer to our Appalachian heritage. He says yes that it somewhat does.
The mill has only been set up for a couple of weeks but the father and son team has been working together for 40 plus years. They barely need to speak in order to coordinate the efforts. They’ve got most factories that worked in far outpaced in efficiency.
As the cane is crushed the juice drips from the 4 drums inside and runs down the spout into a large tub.
The juice is first filtered through a burlap cloth. This takes out large pieces of crushed cane and catches most of the foam.
The next filter is a fine mesh bag that takes out small pieces of pulp and more foam.
The evaporation pan is an outside piece of equipment and has to kept with a coat of vegetable oil to prevent rust. The oil is scrubbed off before the cooking process can start.
The water is heated up for scrubbing process.
Most people think that the raw juice is clear for some reason. The finished product is brown but the raw juice is green. There are still impurities in the mix that has to be removed.
The second fire is lit. Fire is called a purifying element. The juice will be slowly simmered over the next several hours. This not only drives off the water but it also causes impurities to come out of suspension.
The impurities form a film on the surface and handmade skimmers are used to remove it.
“If you don’t get all the green out it will taste green.”
The skimming is labor intensive but it’s a necessary part of the process. Daniel never takes his eyes off of the evaporation pan as the juice simmers. His face is a portrait of concentration and discipline as he works. I made a comment about how important it is to keep the skimmer moving. He said that if you don’t get all the green out it will taste green. Earlier, another camera man was filming for local access T.V. and dipped a finger into some of residual juice that didn’t drain out of the first catch basin. He said that the unprocessed juice tasted like peas only sweet.
I wasn’t able to stay for the final product this time but I’ve eaten molasses that Daniel and his father made when I was a kid. It’s probably the best quality food around and certainly better than the corporate version found in the big box stores.
What’s more is knowing that Matthew is preserving a taste of my childhood and an important part of our Appalachian heritage.
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