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Cane Grinding: A Taste of Authentic Florida

Sugar Cane Syrup, Evinston General Store, Evinston

Written by Authentic Florida guest blogger, Annetta J. Burch

The season of an old family tradition that has moved on to the current generation of Floridians has now begun. The sugarcane grinding phenomenon that has become a long tradition of Southern culture in Florida began about 1890. Its roots were born of necessity. The carmel-flavored, slightly bitter “cane” syrup was used primarily as a sweetener from home grown sugarcane. Long ago, it was used to sweeten tea and coffee but it is ideal as a sweet syrup over pancakes, bacon, sausage, grits, eggs, and biscuits. Cane syrup is also found in many sauces, glazes, cakes, cookies and hard candy recipes.

In Ken Miller’s blog, “Spotlight on Cane Grinding“, he described the beginning process as follows: “Traditionally, cane grindings occur in November, leading up to Thanksgiving and some into December. In the beginning of cane grinding season it usually took several weeks to harvest big crops and to start the boiling process.

Florida sugarcane used for cane grinding

The freshly cut and stripped cane is crushed in a roller mill to extract the juice. The raw, greenish brown juice tastes somewhat like vaguely sweet “grass tea”. Some folks really enjoy this treat.

James Calvert Smith, Sugarcane Grinding, Florida Memory Project

The mill was traditionally powered by a blind mule walking in a circle at the end of a pole, which directly turned the mill’s rollers. The more modern use of a tractor for power doesn’t seem to affect the taste but for my memories it is noisy, smelly and out of place. Next, the juice is boiled down to syrup consistency.” 

Boiling the sugarcane juice to make cane syrup, Dudley Farm State Park Cane Day

Folks in Taylor County (Perry and surrounding areas), where I grew up, have carried on this family tradition with their own cane grindings. Several families have already had their annual cane grinding and numerous ones are to come. I recall going to family cane grindings usually held at cabins deep in the woods or at a family farm. In most places it is considered an all-day event and celebration. Friends and family began arriving in the morning, bringing a “covered dish” for lunch. Kids play games and check out how the syrup is coming along, anticipating the special treat that comes when the syrup is ready. Musicians and singers attending the gathering sometimes come prepared to “pick” and sing during the afternoon.

Cane syrup kettle

A friend who lives in Perry recently shared some of her childhood memories of gathering with family and friends at cane grindings in Taylor County. Elaine Williams Armstrong recalled, “We had a cane mill and sugar kettle and made syrup every year when I was a child. We had a tractor pulling the mill round and round. I always wished we had a mule to do it. My brother Lamar (Bud) got his little finger cut off playing on top of a cane grinder when he was very young.”

“I have a story my Dad told on himself. He was in his early teens and was at a cane grinding. It was dusk outside; not quite dark. In his attempt to impress some girls, he ran and turned a flip into what he thought was the “pummy pile”, the pile of cane stalks that have had the juice squeezed out. It turned out that it was a woodpile. It always made me think of Tom Sawyer for some reason.”

Sugarcane grinder (usually powered by a mule), Dudley Farm Cane Day

I think that all the kids in the county who attended these gatherings, including me, will always remember that special time around the big kettle in anticipation of getting a piece of the “polecat” or candy that forms around the rim as the cane syrup gets thicker.  The candy or “polecat” was formed by scraping it off the kettle from the peelings of the sugarcane stalks used in making the syrup. These made wonderful suckers with an unforgettable taste of Florida sugarcane.

Cane grindings are plentiful around Florida this time of year, including our State Parks. Dudley Farm Historic State Park in Alachua County, where I now live, hosts Dudley Farm Cane Day each year.  The celebration is on December 3, from 9:00 a. m. – 3:00 p. m.  Dudley Farm is located at 18730 SW Newberry Road in Newberry, Florida. 

Musicians play at Cane Day, Dudley Farm, Newberry

Women spin yarn at Cane Day, Dudley Farm, Newberry

Wood carvings, Cane Day, Dudley Farm, Newberry

Annetta J. Burch is a 4th generation Floridian from Taylor County living in Gainesville. Burch has written for many publications including the Citrus County Chronicle, Tampa Tribune, St. Pete Times, Cedar Key Beacon, Nature Coast Visitors Guide, Florida Living Magazine and author of the Culinary Classics Cookbook for the Boys and Girls Club. Annetta can be reached at gritsforever@hotmail.com.

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