Syrup making day: The sweetest day of the year
Published 3:00 am Saturday, November 19, 2016
Perrie Elijah McCartha’s image is hardly visible through the sweet, sticky vapors from the syrup kettle but his voice is crystal clear.
“It takes 10 stalks of sugar cane to produce one gallon of cane juice and it takes 10 gallons of cane juice to make one gallon of cane syrup,” McCartha said as he skimmed the boiling kettle. “And, that’s after the bees get what they want.”
The day was much warmer than a November Saturday should be and the bees were out in droves to taste the sweetest of syrup making day.
“Syrup making day is the sweetest day of the year,” McCartha said with a smile.
And, he should know.
McCartha and his brother, William Sylvester, were no bigger than gallon jugs when they began spending most of their November days at the syrup kettle.
“Back in the old days, we’d work a mule at the cane mill,” Perrie McCartha said. “We’d tie an ear of corn on a long pole and hold it out in front of the ol’ mule. He’d follow that ear of corn, around and around, all the time grinding the cane.”
Back in those days, the McCarthas – Perrie S. McCartha, Sr. and the boys – made syrup by stirring the cane juice in a “wash pot” with a wood fire going up under it.
“We learned syrup making from our daddy and he was the granddaddy of syrup makers back in the days when syrup making was everybody’s chore,” McCartha said. “He taught us how to make syrup the old-timey way and we aim to keep the tradition going as long as we can.”
The brothers, laughingly, said they are getting a little age on them. They don’t want to fool with coaxing a mule around he cane mill so they pull the mill with a tractor. And, their backs won’t let them stand over a hot, sticky syrup kettle stirring syrup with a paddle.
Stirring syrup in a kettle “all day long” is a hot, sticky job so the McCartha brothers have broken with tradition a bit by cooking their syrup in evaporator pans and with propane heat.
“This way is a whole lot easier than the old way of cooking syrup a kettle over a wood fire because, with propane, the temperature is constant,” McCartha said. “The syrup starts out as juice and ends up syrup just like it would in a kettle except the juice goes in one pan and makes its way up a little crooked path, pan to pan, like a maze. When all the water cooks out, you’ve got syrup.”
But cooking all the water out takes time. The brothers and anybody else that shows up are constantly skimming the impurities off the syrup and watching the “dial” to make sure the right temperature is maintained.
“With this setup, we can cook off a batch of syrup in about two hours,” McCartha said. “The longer it cooks, the thicker and stronger the syrup gets. When it gets to 220 degrees, that’s good pancake syrup. When it gets up around 240 degrees, now that’s the kind of syrup that will tear up a biscuit. And that’s the syrup that’s going home with me.”
What makes the McCartha brothers’ syrup unique is that it’s “pure sugar cane syrup.”
“A whole lot of syrup makers add corn syrup and such to make their syrup lighter and sweeter, Perrie said. “We don’t add nothing. Ours is pure sugar cane syrup.”
Old-timey “pure sugar cane syrup” can’t be bought in a grocery store.
“The label might say ‘pure sugar cane syrup’ but if you want ‘real’ pure sugar cane syrup, you’ll want to get it right out of the kettle,” McCartha said.
The McCartha brothers will be making “pure sugar cane syrup” at their syrup shed near Ariton today and Sunday and folks are invited to come out from mid-morning to mid-afternoon and watch the syrup “cook off.”
“You just won’t find any better pure sugar cane syrup than right here at the syrup shed and, if you hadn’t ever been to a syrup cooking, it’s about time you do,” McCartha said with sweet, sticky smile.