Black Friday is infamous for being the busiest shopping day of the year. Some wake up in the early morning hours on a pilgrimage to malls and shopping centers where they wade through throngs of deal-hungry masses and drastically discounted wares. It’s a holiday that has never sat well with me, particularly from my background in the retail and service industries. I hated how people treated one another as well as the shallow spirit of the day itself. Last year, for the first time in my working life, I had Black Friday off. Not being one for willingly flinging myself into consumer chaos, I had resigned myself to staying home until I was invited to my employer’s house, where her family hosts an annual sugar cane grinding and syrup making party.
Louisiana’s tradition of grinding sugar cane dates back hundreds of years to when Jesuit priests first brought the crop to a newly formed New Orleans. With the acquisition of their own cane press seven years ago, the Simon family has become part of that same proud tradition. In an effort to denounce Black Friday and what it has become in the American psyche, the Simon’s have instead created an alternate purpose for the day- one so very far removed from the rat races and super stores. Instead of spending money, they’re now spending time and creating invaluable memories with family and friends.
The morning started with a trailer-load of donated sugar cane stalks from a local farmer and friend of the family. Before the process can begin, each stalk must be stripped bare of it’s long, sharp leaves and placed in a neat pile near the mill. Nothing from the plant goes to waste. The leaves and the bagasse leftover from the extraction process goes back into the land in the form of mulch for the several oak trees that pepper the property.
The mill, also known as a cane press, is a large iron contraption with gears that stands firmly on pillars. On one end, cane is inserted into a slot where two rollers grip and pull the stalks into the heart of the machine. Inside, the stalks are squeezed with great pressure and pulled through to the opposite end where the bagasse falls in thin ribbons to the ground below. As all this takes place, juice pools at the base of the machine and funnels out through a spout on the side into mesh-screened buckets.
Before the press can come to life, something or someone has to exert effort onto the pole that’s fixed atop the machine. One woman watching explained that mules would have been the animal of choice to make the mill move. She said when she was a young girl she only saw pictures of mills, and exclaimed what a treat it was to see the real thing right before her eyes. While there were no mules on this day, there was still plenty of horsepower. The beasts of burden are gone but the zero-turn mower now rises to the challenge. I was told that they once tried to use one of their miniature cows for authenticity’s sake, but she was too stubborn and couldn’t be persuaded to move. Spectators were also invited to push the pole around the mill to make the gears move. The children in attendance seemed to have the most fun with this activity and they tested among themselves who was the fastest or strongest.
What I found most surprising is how much juice can come out in such a short amount of time. Apparently it only takes ten to fifteen cane stalks to produce one gallon of juice, which is fortunate because it takes six gallons of juice rendered down to make only one gallon of syrup! The juice in its freshly extracted form doesn’t look at all appealing. One person hit the nail on the head when they said it reminded them of murky swamp water. It is coming from a plant after all, and still needs some more attention before transforming into the sweet, syrupy goodness we Cajuns have come to love.
Raw cane juice has to be strained before being poured into a large vat where it’s allowed to boil for six to eight hours. As it boils, any excess water will evaporate and the juice level will slowly go down. The juice will turn darker and become more concentrated once it starts to reduce. While the initial straining process does remove a fair amount of particles, the rest will float to the top where it has to be skimmed off. Even more particles will sink to the bottom at the end of the boiling process and will be discarded later. After hours of boiling, and allowing sediment to both rise and sink, the vat is left to cool for a day or two depending on how cool the weather outside is. Only then is the finished cane syrup bottled into jars and shared among friends and family throughout the following year.
It’s a beautiful thing to celebrate one’s own distinct culture, especially on an increasingly commercialized day like Black Friday. The Simon family is keeping their heritage alive through a spectacular display of history come to life. A commodity that is so often taken for granted has been made a catalyst for strengthening the bonds of family and community. It was a privilege to be part of this experience and I hope this inspires you to create new and unique traditions of your own!