Sweet Home Louisiana

Sampling artisanal rum from New Orleans—and one of the city's signature desserts

In summer the fields around New Iberia and St. Martinville, Louisiana, are waist high with rows of frond-covered stalks that to a northerner look like sloppy corn or short bamboo. Anyone from the Gulf Coast knows they are fields of sugarcane. Not many are left. An industry that brought great riches to the South—and great suffering to the slaves who were literally sold down the river from tobacco plantations to work the cane fields and the sugar mills—is now something of an endangered curio.

An update:

After Katrina
A note about Katrina and the New Orleans distilleries covered in this article.

The Southern Foodways Alliance, this country's most intellectually engaged (and probably most engaging) food society, is devoting the year to the history of sugar in the South. (Last year's theme was food and civil rights, with a field trip to Birmingham followed by a conference in Oxford, Mississippi, where the SFA is based at the University of Mississippi.) Although some southern farmers still grow sugarcane for their own use, only Hawaii, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana produce it commercially. Its future in Louisiana, where it is still one of the most economically significant agricultural products, has come under repeated threat, first from sugar beets and then from corn (government subsidies make corn syrup by far the cheapest commercial sweetener); the recent passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement could be its death knell.

In July I joined an SFA field trip to Cajun country, two hours west of New Orleans. The trip began with a taste of one of the few remaining products from Louisiana cane sugar: Steen's cane syrup (www.steensyrup.com), which anyone outside Louisiana would look at and call molasses. We tasted it on French bread at LeJeune's Bakery, in Jeanerette, a sugar town whose cane-crushing mill recently closed—a common story in these parts. LeJeune's, a long brick building from the late 1800s, claims to be one of the oldest surviving bakeries in Louisiana; much of its equipment and many of its recipes are original. Like molasses, the thick syrup that remains after cane juice is boiled to extract sugar, Steen's is an acquired taste, deep and slightly sulfurous, though it is milder and sweeter than molasses. (It tastes nothing like corn syrup, which is gummy and flavorless by comparison.) Some southern farm families still make cane syrup to use in place of granulated sugar, as families in New England still make maple syrup. The first sensation is a piercing sweetness, followed by a lightly bitter backlash. Like most things deep-flavored, complex, and both sweet and bitter (dark chocolate, espresso with sugar), cane syrup, once the taste is acquired, can become addictive.

So can the taste of the best-known product of molasses: rum. Having assumed that all good rum came from the original sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean, I was surprised to find some being distilled in New Orleans, from locally produced molasses. Along with Steen's cane syrup, rum from Celebration Distillation is one of the only guaranteed ways to taste Louisiana sugar.

The sugar industry was, of course, built on the backs of slaves. Louisiana was one of the two richest states per capita in the 1850s, its cane planters having overcome various obstacles to enjoy what the food historian Jessica Harris, speaking on the SFA field trip about the high-living eighteenth-century sugar barons of Barbados and Jamaica, called "stupid money."

The genteel beauty and underlying cruelty of plantation life are still apparent at the Levert—St. John plantation, near St. Martinville, with its grandiose columned "big house" and one of the thirteen remaining sugar mills in the state, a building bristling with old-fashioned-looking pipes and tanks and hoppers. The mills, where cane is crushed as quickly as possible to obtain the maximum amount of sucrose (growers are paid according to sucrose content, and the sucrose quickly deteriorates after the cane is cut), are still hot, reeking, dangerous places. Harris told the SFA group that lost fingers or even arms and legs were usually a sign that slaves had worked in a sugar mill. (Bittersweet, by Peter Macinnis, is one of several histories of sugar that follow in the footsteps of the anthropologist Sidney Mintz's masterly Sweetness and Power.)

Cane stalks are crushed to extract the juice, which is clarified, boiled, evaporated, and precipitated into big sand-colored crystals of raw sugar. Mountains of raw sugar are trucked from the mills to refineries to be melted, refined, and granulated. At Levert—St. John we persuaded our guide to let us taste "impure" raw sugar, which was full-flavored and good—though a bit disappointingcompared with the irresistible muscovado, pillon, and other dark-brown sugars from the Caribbean and Central America, which include more molasses. (Commercial brown sugar is just white sugar given a brief molasses rinse.) The by-products hardly go to waste. Bagasse, the fiber left after the stalks are pressed, is burned to power the mills. Molasses goes into nutritious and iron-rich animal feed—and once its remaining sugars are broken down and fermented, it is the base for rum.

In Colonial times rum was distilled in the Northeast—the Triangle Trade meant that molasses arrived in distilling centers like Boston and Newport on ships that had carried slaves to the West Indies, and left for Africa as rum. Rum helped both to spur the Revolution, because of the British tax on molasses, and to warm its soldiers and commanders. Rum was also, of course, distilled on the islands where sugarcane grew; Barbados and Jamaica, its original strongholds, remain famous for it. It was not, however, distilled in the South. By the time the sugar industry was enjoying its brief period of might in Louisiana (it never achieved anything like its antebellum prominence in the Reconstruction South), rum was falling out of favor. Whiskey, which Scotch-Irish immigrants could make from locally grown grain away from big ports, became the most popular American liquor. And rum was associated with slavery. During Prohibition rumrunners smuggled it in on ships from the West Indies, but the quality was low and did little to improve rum's reputation. Prohibition escapees to Cuba and a vogue for Latin music and exotic cocktails brought rum back into favor and even made it glamorous (see "The Old Man and the Daiquiri," by Wayne Curtis, page 131). A buildup of the Puerto Rican rum industry, in the 1950s, made rum and Coke the standard teenagers' starter drink.

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Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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