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.

a-crushed-outside

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.

a-bagasse

Ground cane being processed

a-grinding

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.

a-boiler

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.

a-checking

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.

a-centrifuge

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.

a-warehouse

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

a-truckload

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.

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Mindful Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving, and I am thankful for so many things: Love, health, family, home, safety, freedom, peace.  I am fortunate because I will join loved ones for a good meal. I am blessed, and I am grateful.

Let’s be honest, though – the holidays are also high-stress.  Stretched finances, overtaxed schedules, family members who make us wonder if there wasn’t some mixup at the hospital, and finding the right gift all take their toll.  No wonder our habit of overeating gets cranked up a notch while our belts are loosened the same way!

pumpkinpie

Author, spiritual teacher and friend Lynn Woodland points out an alternative way of approaching the holiday table(s): Make your eating a spiritual activity.  Not only will you slow down your eating (enabling your brain to trigger the “I’m full!” signal at a time when you can stop eating before misery kicks in), you’ll enjoy your food more.

Give thanks (you can do this silently if you wish) before diving in.  Notice the beauty of your food as well as the taste.  When I cook, I pay attention to colors and textures as well as flavors.  Be grateful for the bounty of our Creator and the creativity of chefs! I’m grateful for the hands that harvested, the hands that cooked (and, of course, the hands that clean). I’m grateful for the nourishment.  When was the last time you really sat and chewed and noticed how good that food is, and how good it is for your body?  And if it isn’t all that good, why are you even eating it?

Eat mindfully, and mindfulness will start to spread throughout your holidays.  Here’s something new to experience: Allow yourself to eat whatever you want – but ask yourself first if you really want it.  If you must follow a special diet for health reasons, you’ll need to modify this.  However, you can still look at that “forbidden” food in a new way: Does it serve me?  Does it strengthen my body, enhance my health and well-being?  You may be surprised to find that the fat-and-sugar laden former “treat” starts to lose its appeal. If you still want it (and it’s safe to eat it for health reasons), go ahead and enjoy it! Enjoy every single bite.  Slowly. Imagine yourself a judge on Chopped and chew slowly, exploring all the nuances of flavors and textures.  If you’re full before you finish the serving, you can always ask for a to-go box!

pecans

I’ve found this to be a very beneficial practice for body and spirit.  With our recent change to a mostly-vegan lifestyle, I find myself seeking out different foods, and exploring them this way.  Beans are a staple of our diet, and I often experiment with “new” beans.  My husband says “a bean’s a bean!” but is beginning to discern subtle differences between them – and that’s just with the humble members of the legume family.

Food is sustenance and comfort.  It is an excuse to celebrate, an event to bring people together. It is an expression of joy, sorrow, or support.  We’re so used to that rush of deliciousness with the first few bites that we tend to plow through the rest of the dish without even giving our taste buds time to register their bliss.  I’ve joked about pecan pie – the first bite is heaven, the second bite is great, and the third bite – well, it’s so rich, I’ve had enough!  But really, what’s wrong with that?  Take a smaller serving.  If you fear the cook will be offended (a common occurrence in south Louisiana – “what, you don’t like it?”), fear not.  Your slow and thorough enjoyment will be obvious, and you may start commenting on flavor nuances that you’ve never noticed before!

Take your time today and throughout the holidays.  Savor time with loved ones as you savor each bite, and give thanks. When we focus on how truly special everything in life is, we slow down our rush to find more.  We realize that maybe we really don’t need more of anything.  We have plenty, and we are blessed.

Plants & Prayers

It’s been an upside down couple of months.

You see, someone very close to me has been diagnosed with several coronary arterial blockages (with one being of particular concern).  Wanting to avoid coronary bypass surgery if at all possible, the question was asked “do I have any other options?”

Surprisingly, the response was a (very guarded) “well…yes.  There is a dietary option.  It’s not easy, but it has been shown to have dramatic results.”

After much research and prayer, my “impatient patient” opted for the dietary change.  For someone living in south Louisiana who is used to cooking with (and eating) meat, seafood, dairy, nuts and oils, a sudden transition to a totally plant-based diet required a very steep learning curve for everyone involved.

So I dug into my vegetarian past, started studying more current research and food availability, and fired up the crock pot and the pressure cooker. I won’t go into the emotional rollercoaster part of all of this; that’s a whole ‘nuther story.

We’re used to “dietary changes” taking a long time to show results, and we always wonder if they’re doing any good because there’s a lot of seemingly conflicting information out there when it comes to diets and nutrition. When I worked in the oncology field, I saw patients changing their diets in many ways, hoping that eating more fresh foods would tip the scales in the favor of health. Anyone who has struggled with weight issues knows that it takes time to see the results of a dietary change. That kind of slow, invisible and unknown progress is what we all expect.

Imagine our shock when our Impatient Patient, under doctor’s supervision, discontinued all medication for high blood pressure because the IP’s blood pressure was, for the first time in decades (did you hear that? DECADES), controlled without medication. This happened within a month.  In fact, within a week, the blood pressure stabilization had begun.

Let me pause in my narrative to say that I’ve always been a bit skeptical of “fad diets.”  There’s always a new diet (usually with a book and guru attached) that’s touted as being a cure-all. I’ve always felt that a sensible, balanced diet was the way to go.  That, and regular exercise, have served me well for several decades. It takes a lot for me to say “wow, this diet is life-changing.”  In fact, I’ve never, EVER said that, until now – because I’ve never seen it happen until now.
mango mandarin slaw
So, my latest creative output has been in the kitchen.  Luckily, I love to cook, and would have stayed vegetarian had I not married Mr. Meat-and-Potatoes years ago.  My goal was to make this nutrition plan NOT an “I’ll never be able to eat ____ again,” but rather “ohhhh, this is DELICIOUS!!”

Trial and error, experimentation, and some great guidebooks and cookbooks have paved the way. I also happen to love whole grains, and I’ve never met a vegetable I didn’t like (with the possible exception of beets).  I’ve discovered that there are even people I know who are following this plan as well, and we’ve shared ideas and resources.  Mr. Meat-and-Potatoes has even started enjoying a plant-based diet – and he LIKES it!

If you want to learn more about Dr. Caswell Esselstyn’s plan for reversing heart disease, check out his book Preventing and Reversing Heart Disease.  Other resources include Dr. Colin Campbell’s The China Study.  There are more resources out there – I’ll include more in this space over time.

The power of plants and prayer is what is getting us all through.  I’m amazed that in spite of the extra time spent on grocery shopping (label reading!) and cooking, I have more energy.  Right now I’m about to sit down to mango-mandarin slaw, take some whole grain bread out of the oven, and enjoy lunch!

Mango Mandarin Slaw

1/2 – 1 mango, cubed

2 oranges, peeled and diced

1 can mandarin oranges, drained

juice of 1 lime

about 1 tablespoon pineapple/orange juice concentrate (or substitute orange juice)

1 tablespoon of honey or agave syrup

Mix the above together, then pour over:

cole slaw mix (shredded cabbage and carrots, 1 bag)

Toss, and enjoy.  I served over baby spinach with some ground flax and chia seed.