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Sugar! Sweet memories, sweet history from a visit to Louisiana’s sugar cane fields

When de-leafed and cut into pieces, sugar cane resembles bamboo. Both plants are important sources of fiber, but of course sugar cane is best known for its sweetness and use in sugar production.
When de-leafed and cut into pieces, sugar cane resembles bamboo. Both plants are important sources of fiber, but of course sugar cane is best known for its sweetness and use in sugar production. Pixabay.com

Sugar cane is one of those sweet crystals of childhood memory.

Happily, it recrystallized a few weeks ago while cruising old U.S. 90 in Louisiana.

A Cajun cousin was at the wheel as we passed mile after mile of sugar cane fields. Some cane was already cut, others stood majestically10 feet high, just as I remembered in my flashbacks.

“It was so much fun driving from the Mississippi Coast to visit our grandparents here,” I reflected.

“Daddy always carried a machete in the car and once we got into sugar cane country, he’d stop by the side of the road and chop down a stalk for us.”

Cousin Mike laughed. “He probably would get shot by the farmer if he did that today.”

Not stealing?

I and my normally rule-abiding dad never thought of this cane ritual as stealing.

He’d cut one stalk, chop it into hand-sized pieces, slice off the thick outer skin and hand each of us four Bergeron kids a piece. We’d happily suck on our cane until we arrived at Bayou Blue in Houma.

If you’ve never tasted fresh sugar cane, you’ve missed a treat, and it’s not as sugary sweet as you might guess. Cane is a great mouth pacifier for all ages.

Sugar cane to the rescue

My Cajun grandfather, like so many others of his generation, augmented his income with seasonal work. Cane harvesting was guaranteed autumn money.

Now as an adult, I realize it is back-stressing, muscle-straining work. Today, many sugar farms are automated but back in my grandpa’s day, sugar caning helped keep his family of 11 fed. Ditto for his neighbors, many of them also land rich and money poor.

Like Louisiana, our state of Mississippi has a sugar-growing history but cotton was always agriculture king. Today, 22 states still grow sugar cane, with four producing the most: Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Hawaii. Last year, the U.S. produced 13 million tons of sugar.

Origins?

I never thought much about where other sugar comes from until I lived in Ireland and on an autumn road trip noticed piles and piles of beets stacked on roadsides.

“The Irish must eat a lot of beets,” I innocently remarked to my host driver.

“We don’t eat those beets,” he explained. “We make sugar from them.”

Now a bit wiser, I know that cooler climates grow sugar beets and warmer climates like South Louisiana are good for sugar cane.

Sugar cane arrives here

Starting about 1800 until the Civil War, Louisiana wore the American sugar crown, and today remains the second largest producing state. Historically and today, our neighboring Pelican State excels in sugar production because of right-stuff geography and agriculture-wise people.

The American sugar story begins in the 1790s. Before that, Britain and France turned all available temperate land in their grasps into sugar plantations, especially on the Caribbean islands. Whether from ignorance or thoughtless money-grabby ways, the soil became depleted after generations of sugar mono-culture.

The new American country that the British had colonized gladly stepped into the sugar void.

The popular story is that Etienne de Bore, a New Orleans mayor, owned a plantation above the city. His indigo crop was failing so on the brink of bankruptcy he experimented with cane in 1795.

De Bore and other savvy planters realized Louisiana’s rich delta soil was annually replenished by Mississippi River flooding. Sugar cane also needs water while growing, so even in droughts it could be drawn from the river, which also conveniently transported the product to market. A new American crop sprouted and, as fate would have it, the Louisiana Territory soon became part of the United States.

I didn’t know any of this as I sucked on my Dad’s purloined sugar cane, but today that history makes my memories even more satisfyingly sweet.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes Mississippi Coast Chronicles as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

sugar cane pieces

When de-leafed and cut into pieces, sugar cane resembles bamboo. Both plants are im-portant sources of fiber, but of course sugar cane is best known for its sweetness and use in sugar production.

credit: Pixabay.com (no attribution required, public domain, can use for commercial use)

Optional: sugar cane field

The sugar cane plant is a coarse growing member of the grass family with juice or sap high in sugar content and processed as a sweetenner. The plants can grow 11 feet high and are planted closely together.

credit: Pixabay.com (no attribution required, public domain, can use for commercial use)

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