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.

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.

Celebration Distillation, in the Gentilly section of New Orleans, occupies an old brick warehouse with a romantic address: off Elysian Fields, near the corner of Frenchmen and Abundance. The whole operation—tasting room in the front, exposed-brick back room with damply aromatic barrels resting on open wooden scaffolding, as if in library stacks—has a pleasantly homey and easygoing atmosphere; the owner, James Michalopoulos, is a painter, and an artist's eye shows in the renovation and the handsome, simple labels.

The distillery makes both light and dark rums, using molasses from Edgard, in southeastern Louisiana. I tasted molasses out of a plastic hose as Jon Blair, the day's distiller, an ambitious young Tulane graduate, began making a batch. The room smelled powerfully of the slightly medicinal and sulfurous molasses, which tasted much rougher than Steen's cane syrup but was not unpleasant. Blair mixed to a milky foam water and dry yeast that had been isolated, he told me, from Louisiana cane sugar. He climbed up a tank to pour the foam into the molasses; the mixture would ferment for a few days before being distilled in a very rustic still that looked like a sideways water heater. Then it would be filtered and bottled for light rum, or put into old charred-oak barrels, bought from Jack Daniel's, to be aged for dark.

Dark rum, the kind that the original sugarcane islands are still famous for, is usually more expensive. White rum—which Bacardi and others made popular for mixing into drinks such as daiquiris (rum, lime juice, and sugar; named for a beach town near Santiago, Cuba), mai tais (rum, curaçao, lime juice, sugar syrup, and orgeat), and of course rum and Coke—is generally considered of lower rank. But Celebration's white rum, called simply Cane, is worth sipping on its own.It's by far the best of the company's rums, with strong and very pleasant vanilla flavors in both the nose and the aftertaste, and a distinct note of molasses in the aftertaste. I wanted to sip Cane over ice; or mix it with Abita root beer, a local soda sweetened with cane sugar, and part of a national artisan-pop trend; or use it in bananas Foster (see accompanying recipe).

For a rum that has been in release only two years (the company sold its first rum in 1999), Cane is impressive, and can show well against its famous rivals. If Celebration's barrel-aged rums are not yet notable, they are promising, with deep, oaky scents and a slight smokiness. New Orleans has been waiting 150 years for its own rum, made with its own sugarcane, and it already has a very good one. It can wait a bit longer for a great one.

Bananas Foster

For a taste of New Orleans, combine rum, butter, sugar, and flames

Seldom can the origins of a dish be traced definitively. On the Southern Foodways Alliance field trip an afternoon was devoted to discussing why bread pudding is so closely associated with New Orleans. Two food historians gave talks, and two legendary African-American restaurateurs and businesswomen, Leah Chase and Willie Mae Seaton, offered very different examples of the dish—Chase's an elegant light custard with praline sauce, Seaton's dense and creamy.

Matters remained (tastily) unresolved. But the origins of bananas Foster, a dessert even more firmly linked to the city, pose no such problems. In 1946 Owen Brennan opened Brennan's, a restaurant that would launch a dynasty, and looked for signature dishes to compete with Antoine's and other well-established fine restaurants. In 1951 Holiday magazine asked him for a recipe, and Brennan offered a dessert created by his chef, Paul Blangé: bananas, brown sugar, and rum flambé over vanilla ice cream. New Orleans was then the country's port of entry for bananas, and the fortunes of rum were being revived. The dessert was named for a frequent customer, Richard Foster (who owned an awning company and also served on a city vice committee—one of doubtless dozens of efforts to bring order to the always picturesquely disheveled French Quarter). This was an era when tableside service at a restaurant brought high prices and gave an air of class, and chafing-dish pyrotechnics brought distinction to a hostess. They still impress guests. Once mastered, bananas Foster is easy and quick to assemble, with ingredients that are nearly always on hand.

What makes the dishgood is the quality of the brown sugar and the rum. Louisiana raw sugar would be the most suitable, but it is hard to come by. Billington's muscovado sugar—made from Mauritius sugarcane, minimally processed and so richly flavored that, paradoxically, it tastes almost salty—would be an excellent alternative. As for rum, Celebration's Cane is the natural choice. Use an ice cream with a very light vanilla flavor, to complement the rum's strong one.

I've adapted a recipe from the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking (previous editions didn't include it), itself adapted from the Brennan's original. For four servings, peel four ripe but firm bananas, cut them in half lengthwise, and cut each half into four pieces. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a large and heavy skillet. Add the bananas, cut side down, and sauté over low heat for ten minutes, turning them once after five minutes. Off the heat sprinkle them with three tablespoons brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg.

If you're unused to flaming, finish the sauce at the stove. Heat 1/2 cup rum in a small saucepan, over a low flame and away from flammable objects, until it is about to simmer (it will seem to be thinning, and a few trails of steam may rise from the surface). Tilting the pan away from you, hold a lit kitchen match well above the surface of the liquid; be prepared to snatch your hand away and to right the pan as the flames rise. Carefully pour the flaming liquid over the bananas and swirl with a flameproof spatula or spoon, scraping up any brown bits. The flames will die down after a minute or so. Spoon the sauce over vanilla ice cream and serve.

The showy version calls for a chafing dish and long fireplace matches; but however you choose to assemble and serve the dish, practice making it before you try it on guests. You can transfer the banana-sugar mixture from the skillet to a chafing dish, working carefully to avoid breaking the bananas, and then carry the heated rum to the dining room and light it there before pouring it over the bananas. Or you can make the whole thing, start to finish, in a chafing dish, adding the rum directly to the cooked bananas and scraping the bottom of the dish as you wait for the rum to get hot enough for flaming. This is a more leisurely method, because everything takes much longer in a chafing dish. But leisure was a hallmark of the Old South, and perhaps somewhere in the Big Easy and beyond someone still has it.

Cane, from Celebration Distillation, is a white rum that starts harsh but ends with notes of toffee and vanilla, and the vanilla gets stronger as the taste lingers. Good on its own and very good for mixing either with cola (many southerners favor RC) or New Orleans—made Abita root beer.

Five Rums Worth Drinking

Barbancourt white, from Haiti, is stingingly alcoholic (it is bottled at 86 proof, whereas most rums are bottled at 80 proof) and requires mixing, with almost any kind of flavored soda. Its most noteworthy feature is its strong molasses nose, a reminder of rum's origins.

Mount Gay Eclipse, from Barbados, is a light straw color and has a mild caramel flavor—appropriate, because dark rum gets its color more often from the addition of caramel syrup than from the char of oak barrels. Of the easily available aged rums this is the most agreeable and balanced, with a pleasant butterscotch aftertaste that doesn't linger.

Appleton Special Jamaica rum is also a light straw color, and has a lovely, delicate nose. The flavor is delicate too, with subtle oak overtones and hints of toffee. The trade would call this "feminine"; I would call it versatile and very, very smooth.

Sea Wynde, a blend of rums from Jamaica and Guyana, is one of the new premium dark rums that apparently want to compete with single-barrel Scotch. It has a strong oak nose, with the strength (it is bottled at 92 proof) and caramel undertones of cask-aged whiskey, and a slightly smoky aftertaste. This rum is a different animal—strong and arresting.

(Most distillers have their own Web sites; a good introductory site with a great deal of information is www.rumshop.net.)