Volume III, No. 3, Spring 1976
by Danny Hough Photography and drawing by Emery Savage
In 1973 Bittersweet writers Ronnie Hough (my brother) and Janet Florence wrote, "Sorghum Molasses--Bittersweet Style," (Vol. I, No. 3, pp. 18-29). The story was based on the many hours of hard labor in the summer and fall months by my family and the Bittersweet staff to make old-fashioned sorghum molasses.
We planted the cane patch in the spring, cultivated it in early summer and one hot morning the whole staff turned out to thin the stalks by hand. When the crop was ready in October, we again all turned out to strip off the leaves, cut off the seed heads, chop down the stalks, load them in a wagon to haul to the mill. There we fed the stalks a few at a time through the rollers which crushed out the juice. The staff members helped my family do all these steps before even beginning the cooking process which took all of us two days.
That was the first year the Charles Hough family had ever made molasses with the supervision of my grandparents, Elvie and Myrtle Hough. And although they had made molasses many years before, they were a little rusty on the process. Molasses making itself is extremely complicated, with a multitude of mistakes possible. Unfortunately, one of the mistakes that could have happened did happen.
And now it can be told! The results of our labor were bitter--literally. No golden brown molasses ever appeared from days of grinding and boiling the juice. The only thing which the work, sweat and smoke-filled eyes produced was a small amount of molasses--bad molasses at that because we had used the wrong seed. We did indeed taste the bitter long before the sweet.
We had done everything as correctly as possible, so the problem was not how we did it. The problem was what we did it with. Instead of planting the regular molasses cane seed, we had used seed from forage cane developed for cattle fodder. The scant juice present in this variety of cane boiled away to almost nothing.
Not to be dismayed by this, my family tried again the next year to make molasses, as we had all the equipment still set up. My father purchased a mill, since we had borrowed one the first year. He got a different molasses pan and a feed sack full of sorghum molasses seed which had been saved from a crop of good molasses cane.
After planting in the spring of 1974, the cane seed sprouted and, as common with such tiny seed, the plants were much too thick for proper growth, for it is very hard to regulate the number of seeds per foot. Several days of hoeing and cultivating remedied this, but not for long. After the cane plants begin growing, they have a tendency to sucker out causing additional plants to grow up all around. Again, hoeing is the only way to thin them out, but it is a losing battle. Anyone standing out in the hot sun for several hours soon wonders if the molasses are* worth all this trouble.
This year we partly solved the problem by mixing the seed with fertilizer to make a more even and thinner spread, but even this was not totally successful. We found that to prevent the suckering of stalks the best way of thinning was by hand--grasping the six inch cane stalk and pulling it out by the roots. Merely cutting off the stalk will not suffice, as the roots will spread and continue growing. We thinned until the plants were spaced every foot or so and then left them to grow and mature until fall.
Water is the most important factor in the growth of cane. Cane stalks can and will stand through a hot, dry summer, for they simply curl their leaves and wait for rain. If necessary, they can wait until the late summer rains of September to continue growing, but the cane stalk must mature before it can be cut and used for molasses. This makes a race for time in October as the first frost will drive the juice down into the roots. Since the juice in the stalk is the product, the stalks must be cut before this happens or most of the juice is lost.
To enable us to grow a crop during this past dry summer, we watered the cane patch all summer from a spring-fed creek using a small, one cylinder gasoline pump. This may not have been very authentic, but we were making molasses, rather than making history.
Cultivating, stripping, heading, cutting and grinding the stalks all followed the same pattern as earlier. But one problem not mentioned before was the 'varmints' who liked molasses as much as we did. Two hornets nests and several yellow jacket nests on our farm brought many 'guests' around the mill and cooking pan. We learned to step pretty carefully around buzzing hornets and yellow jackets feeding on pummies--the flattened cane stalks that came out of the mill. Luckily, nobody was stung by the hornets, although we had several disagreements with yellow jackets. They stung us, and we squashed them. Several of both insects blundered into the cooking molasses, and we sometimes had a batch of candied bugs.
This being my family's third year at molasses making, we learned that the fire is the most critical factor and the easiest to err on, for it must be set up just right to ensure proper cooking.
The first year we set the fire under the cooking pan evenly from the front to the back. But we couldn't have known if this was correct or not as we did not produce enough molasses to tell. The second year taught us the importance of a correct fire layout and fire draft.
First, the fire must be very hot in the front or first three sections of the pan to heat the green juice and start it boiling. Also the fire must be hot enough to keep the heat consistent. Since new wood is continually added, there must be enough heat to set this wood on fire without cooling off the pan. Second, the fire should not extend to the sides of the pan, because the juice should boil in the middle, rolling the scum to the edges to be skimmed off. If the fire covers the whole width of the pan, the juice will boil all the way across preventing the scum from separating. The scum didn't separate our second year causing the molasses to turn out green. The flavor was not affected, but the sight was never appetizing.
The fire itself should extend only halfway back from the front of the pan. (see diagram) From here we laid in gravel, sloping upward to the back, leaving about one foot clearance from the bottom of the pan. Air drawn in from the front and heated by the fire is hot enough to cook the nearly finished molasses in the last two sections. A hot air draft is used instead of direct fire, as the cooking molasses should simmer rather than boil. A fire would be too hot.
Another change from previous years was the use of more stove pipes. The first year our using only one pipe did not create enough suction for the air flow. Thus, the simmering molasses in the last two sections did not receive enough heat to finish the final cooking. This year the three pipes created a much better airflow and more even cooking.
A somewhat dangerous situation occurred this year when we started to cook the molasses. Three of us arose early to set the fire to have a hot bed of coals ready to begin cooking. As we let the fire burn, we heard an explosion inside the fire pit, which shattered the asbestos board covering the front. We were startled, but let it pass as a chance accident. Suddenly another explosion sounded and the fragments of asbestos broke even further. In all there were five explosions, but luckily though the pan was dented, it was not punctured and no one was hurt. If either had happened we couldn't have made molasses that day.
We figured that the explosions were caused by .22 shells. We are rather fond of shooting .22 rifles using the fire pit as a trash can for fired shells. Apparently, one of us had thrown live shells into the pit instead of empties. A freak accident, but it proves that care must be taken with the fire.
This year we also used a different pan with more divisions. The pan is divided into five major sections as before, but each section in this pan is further divided into three smaller ones. This aids in skimming, as the skimmers fit exactly into the smaller sections. As we ran the skimmer down each section, the scum could not get out of the skimmer.
After the first section of the pan is full of raw green juice, the juice begins boiling and the scum rolls toward the sides. After constantly skimming the first three sections to remove the impurities, the juice gradually turns a very light amber as it progresses through the sections. Then, stirring the molasses in the two last sections to prevent scorching, the amber will turn a darker brown and thicken considerably. Steam rises from the pan and into the air, obscuring sight and filling our noses full of the tangy, acrid smell of cooking molasses. It is very important to stir the last two sections constantly or the molasses will scorch, ruining it at the end even after all the preceding effort.
There are several different ways to test the molasses in the last pan to see if they are done. One indication is when the size of the boiling bubbles is almost as big as a dime. Another is when the molasses run off a stirrer and form a long hair. Neither test is perfect. If you run them out too soon, the molasses will be runny, and if they cook too long the molasses will harden into candy. A guess is almost all there is.
When the molasses are ready several things need to be done all at once. The plug is pulled out of the pan to let the boiling hot molasses run out a trough through a cheesecloth strainer into a bucket. The cheesecloth filters out bugs and debris, as molasses are too thick to be filtered any other way. As the finished molasses run and are pushed out of the cooking pan, more must follow behind from other sections. But the new batch should not run in so fast as to get in with the cooked molasses in the bucket. This is a very frenzied time, necessitating people to hold the strainer, push the molasses through the opening into the bucket and push the juice from each section into the next. For when the last section containing finished molasses is emptied, the juice in each section moves up one section and raw juice from the mill is poured into the first section. All of this must occur at once because the fire continues heating the pan from below. Without juice in any section, the pan will scorch. While all this is going on, everyone should see that the sections do not mix and must be careful to keep fingers out of the way. Hot molasses sticking to the skin burn badly.
After our molasses cooled off, the actual yield turned out to be twenty-two gallons of finished molasses to two hundred gallons of raw juice, or approximately 1:9.
Few people can understand or appreciate the effort going into the making of even a single gallon of sorghum molasses--several hot summer months just waiting for the cane to grow, then a week of swinging a corn knife, cutting the stalks, stripping, heading, then several more days of grinding and cooking. Molasses making like this could hardly be considered a profitable business today. Man hours alone at even minimum wage would cost hundreds of dollars, and few people would pay that much for molasses. Also the equipment used for making molasses is almost impossible to find now and is difficult to set up.
Then, even with all of these problems solved to produce an acceptable product, you still need the know-how or skill, which can come only with experience of making molasses, as we have discovered.
But through the making of molasses we have obtained just an inkling of what earlier generations had to work at. The heritage which we at Bittersweet are trying to preserve can be fully understood only through experiencing firsthand the work and difficulties necessary to survive in our grandparents' youth. It is indeed the bitter with the sweet of life.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.