Better than a movie.

Tired, overwhelmed, maxed-out shoppers.  People trying to “get everything done.” Kitchen overload (at least here in the land o’ food, south Louisiana). Choirs and choir directors ramping up for Christmas, wondering why the season with the best music is also one of the shortest liturgical seasons.

Hot chocolate, giftwrap and Hallmark Christmas movies.  NOW we’re talking…

Thursday’s end-of-workday chatter focused on Hallmark Christmas movies.  My husband has seen every one of them (more than once).  I’ve managed to see quite a few, and it seems that quite a few of the folks at work watch them, too.

Sappy?  Sentimental?  Trite? Formula?  Who cares? Christmas movies (Hallmark and otherwise) remind us that we humans yearn for happy endings.

Christmas, though, is a season of happy beginnings.

There are many people who struggle with depression during the holiday season.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s…all are milestones, and the years are marked by memories.  Family gatherings can be joyful – or bring out the friction.  We hear endless talk about “the reason for the season,” yet live in a world where many people hesitate to show faith.

Well, heck.  I say Merry Christmas (unless I’m singing at the Temple or texting my adopted brother, in which case the greeting is a sincere Happy Hanukkah, and this year the dates coincide.) We can bemoan the “commercialization” of Christmas ‘til the cows come home (OK, cornball manger metaphor there), but there is a big commercial element, like it or not.

I refuse to moan.  I take joy in giving, and remind myself to receive gratefully and to not wonder if my gift in turn was “good enough.” My white tree #1 is turning a bit…yellowish. The popsicle stick and gold glitter Star of David made by one of my children in first grade (they each did that craft, and I don’t know whose star is up there this year) is my tree-topper, which I find very appropriate.  It’s not Home & Garden, but it is spiritually and biblically satisfying.  I don’t expect much holiday company, but if they show up, they will be offered whatever’s in the fridge – probably chocolate cashew milk or red wine – and whatever leftovers are hanging around.  In other words, “treated like home folk.”

tree-topper

As for old memories – well, we can be sad by what is gone, or we can rejoice in what is.  And what IS is…

…God incarnate, man divine. Jesus, the miraculous fusion of God and human, relatable to us AS us.  Savior for all, way-shower for a path of love and our guide to the kingdom of heaven. We are reminded, with the passing of the winter solstice and the celebration of the birth of Christ, that light returns. We look around, see our fellow humans’ (and our own) best and worst sides all on full display around the holidays, and make a concerted effort to find the good because hey, it’s Christmas.  We deal with our own struggles in life and keep rooting for the underdog in the spiritual and global war of good versus evil. Sometimes we wonder who or what is winning.

Christmas, though, reminds us that there is always a new beginning.  Christ is born, and we can welcome His changing power of love in our hearts, and His healing presence when we are overwhelmed with doing too much or remembering too much. When we welcome the Christ Child fully into our hearts and lives, the question of “which side is winning” becomes a no-brainer.

This is better than a Hallmark movie, because it’s real.  In the end, love always wins.

I wish you all the miracles of Christmas.

Making Sugar (part 2)

In Part 1, we got the cane from the field, unloaded it at the mill, chopped up, and now… into the mill it goes.

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Cane is crushed before it even enters the mill.

The cane is pretty much pulverized along the way, and the juice extracted.  In another part of the cane mill complex, a core laboratory is analyzing samples from each load of cane to determine sucrose, moisture and other factors which indicate the sugar yield from each truckload.  The cane is pulverized through the mill – usually involving a series of rollers – and the juice is extracted.  The remaining pulp is called bagasse, and is usually incinerated to fuel the running of the mill.  There’s an awful lot of bagasse, though, and the sugar content means it will ferment quickly – there’s that stench a lot of people complain about.

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Ground cane being processed

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Ground cane being processed (more!)

The juice itself is like any other raw juice – a thin liquid, and frankly, not exactly clean.  It’s cleaned up with slaked lime, and the dirt settles out and is usually returned to the fields.  The juice heads off to evaporators so that it can be boiled down.

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Bubble, bubble, boiling sweetness!

If by now you have the idea that a sugar cane factory is a large, hot place with a lot of very massive machinery…you’re right.  Most of the “smoke” people see billowing out of the plant is steam, and both air and water exhaust is monitored and must meet environmental regulations.

Making sugar is an art as well as a science.  It’s one thing to boil the juice down into syrup; it’s something else to coax it into crystalization. It’s a tricky process.

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Checking crystals

Once the magic of crystalization happens, the syrup heads to centrifuges where the crystals are separated from the liquid.  Voila! Raw sugar, which is dried and sent to a warehouse.

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Taking a quick sample from a centrifuge.

Louisiana is home to 11 sugar factories which produce raw sugar, which is sent to refineries that will produce refined sugar and similar products.  Because of the sugar content of the cane, it must be processed quickly after it is cut.  The raw sugar is usually stored in warehouses until it can be shipped to a refinery.

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Cane goes from the mill to a warehouse on a conveyor belt. It pours into a mountain of sugar.

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At the warehouse, the sugar is transferred to dump trucks, which take it to barges, which will take the raw sugar to a refinery.

I often wonder who figured out that the tall, thick cane held this amazing sweet stuff in it.  Since cane was introduced into Louisiana, I don’t think it was the same brave soul who looked at a crawfish and said “I wonder how that tastes?”

So when you sit down to enjoy something sweet this Christmas or Hanukkah, take a moment to think of all those who had a hand in your holiday baking. Chances are many of those folks are at work on Christmas day, because grinding doesn’t stop until all the cane is done. Think about all of those who’ve had a hand in your entire holiday meal, no matter how extravagant or simple, and say a prayer of thanksgiving.

Now I’m going to post this and bake some Christmas cookies with – yep, you guessed it – home-grown Louisiana raw sugar.

Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved.  Please contact me for use.

Making Sugar

I live in the heart of sugar cane country.  I am literally surrounded by cane fields.  From my front porch, I have a view of oak trees and cane fields and in the summer, you can indeed hear it grow (the cane, that is).  Our  world has changed so much over the past decades that more and more people don’t quite realize exactly where their food comes from.  Well, I can tell you a bit about sugar.

Right now it’s harvest time in south Louisiana.  We actually have a relatively short growing season – cane is planted in the late summer of one year and harvested in the fall of the next.  Most sugar consumed (sugar, not corn syrup or other sweeteners) comes from sugar cane (about 20% comes from sugar beets), which is actually a grass.  A grass that can grow really, really tall.

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Sugar cane in mid-summer.  Tall, but still with some growing to do.

In some growing areas of the world where the cane has a longer season, it flowers.  Wow! Not in south Louisiana as the cane must be harvested before it freezes.  Harvest time, or “grinding,” starts around the beginning of September.

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Harvested cane in carts await unloading at M. A. Patout sugar mill in Patoutville, LA.

Cane is cut, loaded into carts or large (18-wheeler) trucks, and brought to the mill. In years past, the cane would be burned after cutting and before loading in order to remove the leaves. Fortunately, newer harvesting techniques results in “billet” cane which is chopped shorter during the harvesting process – eliminating most (but not all) of the need for burning the cane.  It may be a pretty sight, but it does put a lot of smoke and soot into the air.

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Burning fields at dusk between Lydia and Patoutville, LA

Anyone driving on a two lane highway in south or central Louisiana knows to “watch out for the cane trucks!” because they do tend to move more slowly than regular traffic. A pet peeve of mine is the folks who zoom around them recklessly or who complain about the trucks.  What, you’re late for work?  You should know better this time of year, and the person driving the truck is at work already.

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Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA

Sugar mills are where the cane is crushed, juice is extracted, then boiled down to yield sugar crystals (and molasses).  Sounds simple? Well…the idea is simple, but sugarmaking is as much of an art as it is a science.  But first things first.  Cut the cane, load it, haul it to the mill and unload it there.

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A truck filled with cane arrives at Cajun Sugar Co-op, New Iberia, LA

Methods of unloading cane are pretty impressive.

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At Cajun Sugar, the truck body is lifted to dump the cane.

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Sometimes the entire truck is lifted!

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At Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA, it’s a similar process.

But wait…I’m getting out of order a bit.  When the trucks arrive at the mill, they are weighed (they are weighed again after the cane is dumped).  A “core sample” is taken at that time as well.  Think giant hypodermic needle and you get the concept.

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The core sampler at Cajun Sugar.

The sample goes directly to the core lab where it will be analyzed for sugar content.  Samples are tracked by barcode, and the load-specific barcode is generated when the sample gets to the core lab. That info is tracked in the mill’s database so that each farmer can be paid properly. Pretty neat, huh? (I remember my grandfather at the mill, counting his truck arrivals – a common thing back then.)

Once the core sample is taken, the trucks are unloaded and the cane is stacked up in a massive yard.  From there it is transported into the mill for grinding.

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Not quite a “big ol’ rock candy mountain,” but a mountain of sugar cane.

The cane is chopped more before going into the mill.

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Between the cane yard and the actual mill.

On the way into the mill, the cane will be on a conveyer belt and “make a pass” under some giant magnets.  A stray piece of metal can mess up the mill, and possibly harm a mill employee.

Generally speaking, the cane will be chopped, smushed, macerated, and more or less rendered into mush/goo/yucky looking stuff and the juice extracted. Hence the term “grinding!”

But how does the juice from this overgrown grass become sugar?  Ahh, that’s the next segment of this series, as I’m now going to have a cup of coffee sweetened with raw sugar.  Stay tuned!

Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved.  Please contact me for use.