By MM Pack
Photography by Knoxy
Ain’t no more cane on the Brazos
It’s all been ground down to molasses.
—traditional Texas prison work song recorded by Lead Belly and many others
The holiday season is upon us and—love it or hate it—sugar is a major component in seasonal culinary celebrations from Halloween through New Year’s Day.
Regardless of what you think about sugar and its place in the modern diet, the fact remains that it’s played an enormous role in culinary, economic and political history.Food-science writer Harold McGee wrote, “This single plant species…had a remarkably wide-ranging influence on Western history.” Specifically in Texas, sugarcane has been a significant presence for a very long time.
New Guinea to Texas: Sugar’s Long, Strange Trip
Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is a giant grass that is filled with sweet pulp, whose wild ancestor probably originated 8,000 years ago in New Guinea. It slowly migrated into Southeast Asia and northern India where Sanskrit medical texts first described processed sugar crystals around 500 BC. Via the 8th-century Arab conquest, sugarcane moved from Persia to Spain with the agricultural revolution that introduced new crops and irrigation into Europe. First considered valuable medicine, sugar later evolved into a spice—as rare and expensive as pepper, saffron and cinnamon—and was long associated with power and privilege.
Sugarcane arrived in the Western Hemisphere on Columbus’s second voyage, in 1493. Son-in-law to a Madeira sugar planter, he transported cuttings from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). It flourished in the tropical Caribbean—quickly becoming the region’s primary crop. By 1520, it was also growing in Mexico. In fact, Cortés built the first North American sugar mill in 1535 near Mexico City.
By 1600, sugar production was the world’s most lucrative business. The West Indian “sugar islands” brought immense wealth to Europe, and sugar evolved from costly condiment to major commodity. But it was a harsh and labor-intensive industry, and its economic dependence on slavery can’t be overstated. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the sugar-and-slave trade routes constituted a triangular cycle: ships carried European goods to West Africa to be bartered for slaves destined to work in New World sugarcane fields and sugar mills. When the ships arrived in the Caribbean from Africa, slaves were exchanged for sugar cargoes that were transported back across the Atlantic to avid European markets.
Jesuit missionaries introduced cane cuttings to Louisiana from the Caribbean in 1751. However, sugar was already present in Texas. It had migrated north from Central Mexico to Monterrey, and then to the outlying mission settlement of San Antonio. When the Spanish crown brought 55 colonists from the Canary Islands to San Antonio in 1731, it’s a safe bet they knew how to grow cane and process it into sugar and molasses.
Sugar Industry in Texas
Although sugarcane was planted on a small scale early in Texas’s development, it wasn’t produced commercially until the 1840s. As the population exploded with Anglo settlers from the United States and Europe, sugarcane growing was part of the resulting agricultural development, especially along the semitropical Gulf Coast region that included Brazoria, Fort Bend, Wharton and Matagorda Counties—known as the Texas Sugar Bowl.
Commercially growing and processing sugar weren’t options for small farmers; sugar production required significant investment in land and slave labor, a steam-powered roller mill to grind cane, a sugarhouse for boiling extracted juice and a way to transport raw sugar to distant refineries and markets. The first sugar refinery in Texas was built in 1879, near Houston, on a plantation that had been growing and milling sugarcane since 1843. This evolved into the Imperial Sugar Company, one of the oldest businesses in the state. In the early 20th century, Imperial built a company town called Sugar Land that provided housing, medical care, schools, retail stores and a bank for refinery workers.
In 1902, Imperial was already refining raw sugar supplied from outside the state, and by the 1950s, it imported raw sugar from Brazil, Australia, Africa, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Today, former Imperial sugarcane fields are placid subdivisions, and Sugar Land is a bedroom community for Houston. But the company remains a major force in the world’s sugar trade as one of the largest refined-sugar companies in the U.S.
After the Civil War, the abolition of slavery forced growers to find different sources of labor for the arduous, hot, smoky and dangerous sugarcane harvesting. In Louisiana, most sugar plantations converted to wage labor, but Texas devised a convict-lease system, whereby prisoners were leased as laborers to private contractors. In 1882, 12 of the 18 Texas sugar plantations used a third of the state’s prisoners (approximately 800 laborers) in their sugarcane fields. After the convict-lease system ended in 1914, state-run prison farms grew sugarcane along with cotton, corn, vegetables and feed crops.
In the 1920s, the convergence of plant disease, the Great Depression and fluctuating sugar markets led to a dramatic reduction of sugarcane planting in Texas. Although Imperial Sugar continued to refine raw sugar from elsewhere, commercial growing in the state virtually disappeared for 50 years. That changed when a consortium of South Texas agriculturalists working with the Texas and U.S. Departments of Agriculture determined it was feasible to grow sugarcane commercially in the Rio Grande Valley. Their first crops were harvested in 1973, and today 1.5 million tons are grown on 40,000 acres.
In 2001, a new development for sugar in Texas occurred when Imperial partnered with the U.K.’s Edward Billington & Son to create Wholesome Sweeteners, an organic-sugar company. Headquartered in Sugar Land, Wholesome acquires organically grown, Fair Trade Certified sugar from farm cooperatives in Costa Rica, Malawi, Mexico and Paraguay.
In a different direction, another recent development is the research conducted at Texas A&M University by biologist Erik Mirkov. He’s developing strains of sugarcane that thrive in colder, drier climates. With his varieties, the edible sugarcane juice is extracted and the residual fibrous material is used as fuel. Significantly, Mirkov’s sugarcane produces both enzymes used in food processing and proteins used to treat human diseases like cancer.
The prison work song, “Ain’t No More Cane” is a sad historic commentary about backbreaking work and hard times, but in the future, perhaps sugarcane will flourish again across the state—with less human cost and more human benefit.
DARK AND SPICY GINGERBREAD
This moist gingerbread is adapted from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. This version uses Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup and is delicious all by itself or dressed up with poached pears or apples, whipped cream or lemon curd. Steen's Pure Cane Syrup was first produced by a cane grower in Abbeville, Louisiana in 1910. Steen's is the only U.S. cane syrup still manufactured today and is recognized by Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste as an endangered regional food product.
2 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
¼ t. baking soda
2 t. baking powder
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. ground cinnamon
½ t. allspice
½ t. salt
1 c. water
½ c. (1 stick) unsalted butter
1½ c. Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup (or molasses, if you prefer an even darker gingerbread)
2 eggs, beaten
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour an 8-inch square or round baking pan. Sift the flour, baking soda and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Blend in the spices and salt with a wire whisk. In a small pan, bring the water to a boil then add the butter. When the butter is melted, whisk the water mixture into the flour mixture. Whisk in the syrup, and then the eggs. Whisk until thoroughly blended and smooth, then pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a skewer plunged into the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack and remove from the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.
SOUTHERN BISCUIT MUFFINS
Courtesy of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen Cookbook
Makes 1 dozen muffins
2½ c. all-purpose flour
¼ c. sugar
1½ T. baking powder
¼ t. salt
10 T. (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons)
unsalted butter, softened
1 c. cold milk
In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt; mix well, breaking up any lumps. Work the butter in by hand until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, making sure no lumps are left. Gradually stir in the milk, mixing just until dry ingredients are moistened. Do not overbeat. Spoon the batter into 12 greased muffin cups. Bake at 350° until golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes. The finished muffins should have a thick crust with a cakelike center.
TARTE À LA BOUILLE (CREAM CUSTARD PIE)
Courtesy of Louisiana Sugar, by the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service
Makes 2 pies
Sweet Dough Pie Shells:
½ c. sugar
¼ c. butter
1 egg, beaten
2 t. vanilla
3 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
½ t. salt
½ c. milk
Cream the sugar and butter together. Add the egg and vanilla, mixing well. Stir in the flour, baking powder, salt and milk. Roll out the dough and place it into 2 pie plates, reserving a small amount of dough. Cut the reserved dough into strips to place over the pies.
1¼ c. sugar
6 T. flour
4 eggs, beaten
5 c. milk
4 t. vanilla
1 recipe Sweet Dough Pie Shells
Mix the sugar and flour together, then add the eggs. Bring the milk to a boil. Add a small amount of hot milk to the egg mixture, stirring well. Add the egg mixture to the milk in the pan and cook until thickened. Add the vanilla and cool slightly. Pour into the prepared pie shells and cover the custard with the reserved dough strips. Bake at 400° for 30 to 35 minutes.
PRALINES IN TEXAS
YOU SAY PRAH-LEEN, I SAY PRAY-LEEN
Pecan pralines (PRAH-leens) are a beloved element of the French-based Creole cuisine of New Orleans. Less well-known outside of Texas are the very similar caramelized pecan candies known as pralines (PRAY-leens). What brought this confection to these two distinct culinary cultures, and do they share common roots?
The answer is yes, they do share a common origin. Sweetmeats made from nuts and sugar are among the oldest confections in the world. Their presence parallels sugarcane’s migration from Persia into Spain and Sicily via the 8th-century Arab conquest, which also introduced almonds into Mediterranean Europe. Almond-and-caramelized-sugar candies were called by different names in different parts of Europe; in France, they became known as praslines after the Duke of Plessis-Praslin.
Along with sugarcane, French immigrants brought the praline tradition to Louisiana, and Spanish settlers introduced it into Mexico. There were no almonds in the New World, but tasty wild pecans grew abundantly. Therefore, creative Spanish cooks in Mexico City and Creole cooks in New Orleans adapted—both made traditional caramelized sugar candies with pecans instead of almonds. As Mexican settlers moved into Texas, they brought sugarcane north with them and they found Texas riverbanks lined with native pecan trees.
From the 1830s, landowners cultivated commercial pecan orchards, and poor people—white, black and Hispanic—supplemented their incomes by gathering wild pecans. Making pecan candy and selling it on the street became a cottage industry for the poor in Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. Since native pecans were free for the picking, the only investment required was a pot, a source of heat and some sugar. (Early pralines were made simply from pecans and caramelized sugar. Not until the late 19th century did recipes get fancier with additions such as the milk, buttermilk, butter, vanilla, salt, vinegar and baking soda that we see today.) In Mexico and South Texas, the typical sugar choice was inexpensive piloncillo, cones of dark, unrefined sugar.
Although undoubtedly present earlier, street vendors of pecan candy were well documented by the 1870s, both in New Orleans and in Texas. Early recipes show that the pralines sold in New Orleans by Creole pralinieres share the same ingredients and the same preparation as the dulces de nueces sold on the streets of San Antonio.
Sometime during the mid-20th century, Mexican pecan candies migrated onto the menus of Mexican restaurants in Texas. At around the same time, Anglo enthusiasts for Tex-Mex cuisine starting calling them “pralines” (that’s PRAY-leens), and the name stuck. Not surprising, since the Mexican candies and their Creole cousins in New Orleans originated from the same medieval source and are made from the same ingredients using the same process.
CRISPY PECAN PRALINES (PRAY-LEENS)
Courtesy of Tabatha Stephens, Dai Due
Makes about 20 pralines
1½ c. Texas pecans, sorted and broken into large pieces
1½ c. organic sugar (evaporated cane juice)
6 T. butter
¾ c. brown sugar
½ c. whole milk
½ t. kosher salt
2 t. Mexican vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 400°. Bake the pecans on a cookie sheet until golden brown and toasted, about 5 to 10 minutes. Line a flat baking sheet or a clean table with parchment paper.
Place all ingredients except the vanilla in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Cook, carefully swirling the pan to help sugar dissolve, until the temperature registers 234° on a candy thermometer. Remove from the heat and let sit for 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and pecans then stir firmly but carefully until the mixture is no longer shiny. Drop onto the prepared baking sheet by spoonfuls. Cool. Pralines are ready to eat when firm. Store in an airtight container. Enjoy!
AUNTIE'S PRALINES (PRAH-LEENS)
Courtesy of Sharon Richardson, Christen’s Gourmet Pralines
Makes about a dozen pralines
1 c. evaporated milk
2 c. sugar
4 T. butter
2 t. vanilla extract
½ c. chopped large pecans
Cover a wood table or baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray the foil with nonstick cooking spray. Add the evaporated milk to a medium saucepan over medium heat. Warming the milk makes it easier for the sugar to dissolve. After about 5 minutes add the sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. Cook until the mixture begins to thicken and turn a beautiful caramel color.
Drop a tiny ball of the mixture into a cup of ice-cold water. If a ball forms in the water, then the candy is ready. Add the butter and vanilla and stir until well blended, then add the chopped pecans. Drop the mixture by the spoonful onto the prepared foil. Cool the candy for about 30 minutes, or longer if it is raining or humid. Enjoy.