Sunday, December 4, 2011

Boiling the Cane

Patrick Greene told me about his family's tradition of harvesting and boiling cane in late November. I got up at the crack of dawn and drove east through downtown. There was a violent panic to the traffic as people rushed to their jobs in the city. I drove till the East West Expressway ended and then continued east. I missed the farm's driveway on my first pass. I turned around in the parking lot to a natural preserve. I wasn't sure how far to drive down the dirt road, so I followed it back to a barn. When I got out of my truck a hound dog let out a hollow howl. He was harmless, he came up and sniffed my hand.

A dozen men, many with cowboy hats, sat around several tables swatting flies. I asked for Patrick and they directed me back to the house at the road. I drove back. Patrick greeted me at the front door. His mother was in the living room and she apologized for the mess although everything looked in it's place to me. She is an artist herself and she pointed to several rendered pencil drawings that she had done. They were framed and looked good against the dark wood paneling.

Patrick walked back to the barn with me and introduced me around as "the artist." The cane had already been harvested. Then joked that we should have gotten up much earlier to help with that. The cane was crushed by a mechanical crusher and the sweet liquid was gathered. My sister Pat Boehme had some cane growing in her yard in Port Charlotte. I asked to cut a stalk so I could see how it tasted raw. I cut out the soft inner pulp and chewed on it. Raw cane is delicious but once the initial burst of flavor passed, I had to spit out the chewed pulp. A neighbor said that as a child, he was given raw cane as a treat instead of candy.

Back in the barn a large cauldron full of cane juice was boiling. Thirteen rows of cane were not harvested since they had plenty of cane juice for the boil. The heat was intense and the steam rose. Several men were always on hand to skim the surface removing the debris and thin film that rose to the surface. All morning the furnace blazed. An inner metal cylinder was placed inside the cauldron and mesh was wadded up and inserted around the edge to soak up more of the film. A breeze began wafting the steam away. Several men tacked up a green drop cloth to block the breeze. It seemed the steam needed to linger and rise straight up for the boil to be most effective. By the end of the day all that would be left was a thick syrup which the women would bottle. This is a true old Florida tradition, a look at an art form that is fading away in our fast paced times.


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