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Next Tea Party Friday March 4th

Friday, March 30, 2012

Why is all the rum gone?

I live in Louisiana, in the parish that is the dividing line for cotton and sugar country. The rise of Louisiana in the 18th century isn't so much tied to cotton as it is sugar. Admit it, we all love sugar. Sugar was one of the many reasons Jefferson wanted New Orleans.

There's a theory out there that says sugar was discovered as a by-product of making rum. It's not true, but it sounds cool. The process of boiling cane juice to make sugar was discovered in India in the first millennium, B.C. Herodotus knew of it in the fifth century, B.C. The plants slowly spread from India and South Asia to the Mediterranean, probably thanks to Alexander the Great, and then Columbus took it to what is now the Dominican Republic in 1493.


The first attempts at cultivating sugar in Louisiana were dismal failures.  Jesuit priests brought it from the Caribbean islands to New Orleans in 1751 and attempted to cultivate it without much success. The variety they brought in didn't like the weather. After much trial and error a variety known as Creole cane finally took root and grew very well in our strange, borderline sub-tropical climate.

But it still wasn't making money. Enter Etienne de Bore, a French Creole. The year is 1795. the place is Destrehan Plantation. De Bore was an innovator and figured out if he could streamline the process of making sugar and speed it up, untold riches were available. So that's exactly what he did in 1795. The same year the cotton gin was invented.

Sugar is still a vital part of Louisiana's economy. We produce thousands of pounds of sugar every year, along with cane syrup and molasses. I freely admit it, I'm partial to Louisiana sugar. It's available at every store with Domino's Sugar on the shelf. Sugar is also produced from sugar beets and corn, but those two can't make brown sugars, cane syrup and molasses.

Many people think white sugar comes first in the process. That's not true. Raw sugar comes first. Then dark brown, light brown and finally white. The crystals don't turn white until the last drops of molasses have been extracted. The juice itself looks and feels like slimy water that's been sitting in a bucket for two weeks. It has a slightly sweet scent, but most people never guess it holds white gold.

Which brings us to the rum. And pirates. Rum is fermented cane juice and it comes in many varieties. The clear stuff is the lightest grade. The darker the rum, the higher the molasses content. Some brands of dark rum are so dark and thick, at first glance you could mistake it for molasses. Only the bite of the alcohol when it hits your nose or taste buds tells you it's not molasses. Dark rum makes great eggnog, according to my dad.

In the 18th century sugar came in cones, like the ones pictured here. They can be purchased from Jas. Townsend and Son, Inc. You can also buy the pictured sugar nippers.

Back then, making sugar smelled like molasses cookies fresh from the oven. I know it first-hand from working at Kent Plantation House. Every second Saturday in November is Sugar Day, when the reproduction 1840's sugar mill is lit and sugar is made. Nowadays it smells like an elephant died under your window.

Tons and tons of waste is produced, and many Louisiana mills now burn that waste to generate the electricity the mills use. Some of it is now being turned into paper, which is heaven to write on and more environmentally friendly than other papers.

8 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff! Thanks for posting it, so much I never knew about the sweetness I enjoy. :)

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  2. Great post, but I have to admit it was a Jack Sparrow thought that made me click to read at first.

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    1. I love Jack Sparrow too! That's part of why I named this post the way I did.

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  3. I've always known the process for making sugar started dark and went to white, but I didn't know about the "slimey water" bit. Nor the aroma. I've always like the fragrance of sweet things baking.

    My grandmother, born in Arkansas, loved blackstrap molasses mixed with butter on biscuits. And given a choice, I prefer dark brown to lighter any day.

    Now I have to research Etienne de Bore.

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    1. I never knew the juice looked like slimy water either, until I started working at a plantation with an 1840's sugar mill that's fired up once a year.

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  4. Rachel, thank you so much for such a wonderful article! Of course you got my attention with the title. LOL. But odd thing.. I'm doing research on Brazil for a series I'm writing and in the 19th century they were famous for a rum they made from sugarcane juice called pinga. Up to this point, I never knew rum was made from sugar.

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    1. Rum is made from molasses, to be precise. I didn't go into that too much because I could get sidetracked on that for hours!

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  5. Thank you! The way these things came about then is so fascinating.

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