Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Story of Sugar

Gail and I are currently taking a course in nutrition that includes dieting and, in particular, knowing how the body reacts to food. At this point sugar is taboo. At least I can read about it! 
The Story of Sugar
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Everyland magazine, Oct. 1918, researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, Mar. 2012.

DID you know that it was only a couple of hundred years ago that sugar was discovered, and that at first it was used only as a medicine? And yet we already depend on it to such an extent that no boy or girl would be happy without it. The children of Europe like it as much as we do; so let us eat honey and maple sugar, dates and raisins, and other sweet things to help our Food Administration save the sugar to send across the ocean.

DID you ever realize how interesting sugar is? When you sprinkle the white crystals on your cereal or drop the white cubes in your cup, do you ever stop to wonder where the sugar came from and who sends it to us? Perhaps it came from the South Americans or the West Indians; it may have come from our Hawaiian neighbors, far out in the Pacific; perhaps the people from distant India sent it to us, or even the Japanese or the Filipinos; and then again, it may have come from our own folks in Louisiana or even from Kansas or California. For, while the best sugar is made from sugar-cane which grows only in tropical or warm lands, yet great quantities are made from a kind of beet which is raised in many parts of the United States and Europe.
Most of our sugar comes from the West Indies and especially from Cuba, for Cuba is the greatest sugar-producing country in the world. So let us take a little trip down to these tropical islands and follow the story of sugar from the time the canes are planted until the crystals are ready to sweeten our foods and beverages. On the big estates the men plow and prepare the ground by machinery, but a great deal of the sugar is raised by native farmers who are very poor and have little land and who still plow their ground with crooked sticks drawn by big, lumbering oxen. Perhaps you think that the sugar is planted by sowing seeds just as we raise corn; but this is not the case, and instead of planting by sowing seeds, the sugar-cane farmer plants what are known as "suckers." These are the little shoots which spring up about the bases of the canes; they look like little sections of corn stalks or bamboo. If you saw a sugar-cane field just after it was planted, you would never guess that it was anything but a field full of little dry sticks; but very soon tender green leaves spring up from the suckers, and in a short time the field is a beautiful mass of green ribbon-like leaves and great bunches of stout, curved stems of green, red, and yellow and often very prettily striped with several colors. But to see a sugar-cane field at its best, you should see it when the canes are in blossom—or "in arrow," as the farmers call it—and when above the green leaves the great pink and purplish plumes wave gently in the breeze like millions of soft feathers.
All the time, while the cane is growing, the workers are kept busy cultivating the soil, keeping away the weeds and brush and caring for the canes, and as the canes grow large and the leaves become drier, great care must be used to see that the fields do not catch fire. Then at last the canes are "ripe" or are ready to harvest, and hundreds of workers go forth to cut the cane. In some places they are brigandish-looking Spanish men with swarthy skins, keen black eyes, and fierce mustaches and dressed in white cotton and broad straw hats; in other islands they are laughing, chattering negroes in rags and tatters with turbanned heads and bare feet; while in still other places they are picturesque Hindu coolies, the men clad in strips of cotton and with huge turbans, the women in brilliant skirts and short jackets and with ankles, arms, and noses loaded with silver jewelry.
But in one way all these various people are alike, for they all carry heavy, curved, sword-like knives, or machetes. Reaching the fields, the little army of cutters commences to work, some trimming away the masses of leaves, while others cut down the juice-filled stalks, and each and every one constantly munching bits of the sweet cane.
After the cutters come the workers with mule cars or the huge-wheeled ox carts. Into these they pile the masses of canes, until presently the field looks as if it had been swept by a hurricane, and in place of the green sea of leaves is a vast expanse of brown earth littered with the dead and dried leaves and dotted with the sharp stubs of the canes. From each of these stumps new shoots will spring up to form new canes, and if left to themselves, they would soon grow so thickly and so closely together that the canes would be small and have little juice. So the shoots or suckers are thinned out, and those cut away are planted in new fields.
But to return to the canes which have been cut and are being carted off toward the mill. On some estates the men cart the canes directly to the mill, but on the large estates where there are miles and miles of fields, the canes are carted to the estate railways which run here, there, and everywhere. Here the canes are picked up by big claw-like hooks and are lifted and swung onto the cars by derricks, or else the men back the carts up beside the tracks and toss the canes into the flat cars. Then, when the train is loaded, the little engine snorts and puffs, the cars rumble off, and at last reach the big mill with its huge chimneys, where men are waiting to make the juice of the canes into sugar.
In the old days these mills were run by huge windmills. In Barbados many of these are still used, but in most places the mills are driven by steam and the fires for heating the boilers are made of the waste from the canes, so that very little is lost. Reaching the mill, the cars are run into a shed where huge iron teeth move slowly forward, and grasping the canes, pull them from the cars and carry them inside the big building. Here they are dumped on a moving belt and a moment later they are seized and crushed between immense iron rollers. As the great rollers crush the canes, the juice runs out in a steady stream into vats below and the canes are carried to other rollers to squeeze out the last of the juice, until finally only a dry, sawdust-like substance known as bagasse is left. This is conveyed from the rollers directly under the boilers, where it is burned to make the steam for operating the mill.
The juice which runs from the canes is strained and drawn or ladled into big vats or boilers, where it is boiled and boiled until it turns into a thick dark sirup, or "molasses." Then this is drawn to other vats and heated until it becomes a brownish sticky mass of crystals. This is the raw sugar. A small part of the juice is still left, a black tarry mass known as "black strap" from which alcohol or rum is distilled or which is mixed with other materials for cattle food.
The raw sugar is a very dirty, unappetizing mess, and as the barefooted negroes walk about in it or shovel it about like dirt, you might think that our sugar was a very dirty thing. But there is much to be done to this raw sugar before all the dirt and impurities are removed and it reaches our tables. Very few of the mills prepare sugar as we see it, or in other words, refine it, but nearly all partially refine it. By boiling it, treating it with chemicals, and running it through a machine known as a "centrifugal," the dark-brown, wet, sticky mass is transformed to buff-colored or golden yellow crystals which are known by such names as "Muscavado," and "Demerara crystals," according to their purity and where they are made. In the countries where sugar is made, most of the people use these partially refined sugars on their tables.
When the sugar in the mills has gone through all these processes, men pack it in big burlap bags and send it by carts or by railway to the docks. During the sugar season you can see the great warehouses and docks piled with thousands and thousands of these sacks.
From the docks men load the sugar first on barges and from these into the big steamships, as you see in the picture—thousands of tons to a ship. Far across the seas the steamers carry the sugar from the tropical land where it grew to the big factories in the cities of the north.
Here the raw sugar is unloaded, and by machinery and processes which you could not understand, it is made white and pure and comes forth in the snowy cubes and glimmering crystals which we use. One part of the process will interest you, for it seems perhaps the strangest thing of all. In order to make the sugar pure white it is mixed with the blackest of black soots. After all the impurities are removed the melted sugar is still yellow, but by running it through long cylinders filled with charred bones or "bone black," all the yellow color disappears and the pure white sirup is crystallized into the snowiest of snowy sugar. Now don't you think that this is really the most wonderful part of the story of sugar?

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.