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Valerie Phillips
LSU's Rural Life Museum offers a chance to see cane syrup being boiled in a large vat over a wood fire.

BATON ROUGE, La.— As autumn baking season sets into full swing, sugar is an essential ingredient.

It balances sour, salty and bitter flavors. It sweetens, tenderizes and browns baked goods. It's essential in creamy fudge, chewy caramels and crispy brittles.

But cane sugar, the oldest type of sugar in the United States, has a bittersweet history.

Fortunes were made and lost over it, thousands of slaves and sharecroppers spent their lives toiling over it, wars and weather took their toll on it.

Sugar cane, native to Southeast Asia, is a tall grass with sweet sap in its thick, fibrous stalks. It was one of the early crops introduced to the Caribbean area by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, where it flourished.

In 1751, Jesuit missionaries brought sugar cane plants, along with experienced field workers, to what is now downtown New Orleans.

But, turning it into a commercial enterprise took awhile. Sugar cane is a tropical plant, and the southern United States stretches the boundaries of a tropical climate, said Charley Richard, a Louisiana-based sugar research consultant and publisher of an industry magazine called Sugar Journal.

Louisiana's relatively short growing season and early frosts were a challenge, and the resulting sugar was of poor quality.

Instead of the crystallized grains that we enjoy today, it was either a syrup or large, hard chunks that could be chipped off as needed.

Then in 1795, Etienne de Bore, who later became New Orlean's first mayor, succeeded in getting cane syrup into granular form. De Bore married the daughter of the former treasurer of Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste Destrehan, and risked the family fortune on sugar cane.

His first successful crop of sugar was sold for 12.5 cents per pound; the molasses was 50 cents per gallon, according to Richard's article, "200 Years of Progress in the Louisiana Sugar Industry."

Norbert Rillieux, a free man of color born in New Orleans and educated in Paris, patented a triple effect evaporator in 1843, which revolutionized the process of turning the hot boiling syrup into sugar crystals.

Slaves and sugar

The harvesting and production of sugar cane was labor-intensive, and that fueled the slave trade. By the 1860s, the sugar industry was using 300,000 slaves, according to Richard's account.

The country's largest sugar plantation during this period was Houmas House near Baton Rouge, known in its heyday as "The Sugar Palace."

Irishman John Burnside bought the plantation for $1 million in 1858. By 1860, Burnside was considered the wealthiest man in Louisiana, and he was known as a lavish entertainer and host. During the Civil War, he saved the mansion from being destroyed by Union forces by declaring immunity as a subject of the British Crown.

The Civil War put an end to the Southern plantation system, and sugar production plummeted from 264,000 tons of sugar produced in 1861 to 5,971 in 1864, according to Richard.

Sharecropper era

The war freed the slaves, but the sugar industry still needed workers, and the freed slaves needed food and shelter.

The result was the sharecropping system. Sharecroppers worked a section of the plantation independently and received a very small percent of the parcel's output.

"The landowner gave the farmer a house, and a plot of land, supplies and equipment," explained John Folse, a chef and Cajun historian, and self-published author of "The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine."

"When the crop was sold, the supplies were subtracted and profits split 50-50."

Then in 1927, the Mississippi came out of its banks in the most destructive river flood in U.S. history. Many displaced African-American farmers moved to the big cities in the north in search of work.

The flood spared the Houmas House mansion but devastated the surrounding land and crops. Two years later, the Great Depression hit, dealing a final blow to the plantation's sugar production. The mansion was closed and fell into disrepair.

Louisiana's sugar industry survived by turning to mechanization to solve the need for labor. Factories consolidated and got more efficient, and Louisiana State researchers helped by developing disease-resistant and higher-yielding varieties of sugar cane that are more cold-tolerant.

The research continues today at the LSU AgCenter's sugar research station near Baton Rouge.

"Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands and fool Mother Nature," said Kenneth Gravois, the station's director, pointing out varieties of cane that have been cross-pollinated.

Today, there are four states that produce sugar cane: Louisiana, Florida, Texas and Hawaii. Louisiana's is the oldest and Florida's in the largest.

Reliving history

One can glimpse some of the old sugar history by touring the Houmas House. In 2003, New Orleans entrepreneur Kevin Kelly bought the mansion and grounds, furnished it with antiques and opened it to the public for tours, receptions and dining.

The mansion has been a backdrop in TV shows and movies, including the 1963 Bette Davis film "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte." The bedroom where Davis slept is preserved as part of the tour.

Louisiana State University's Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge offers a chance to see the cane syrup being boiled, using a large vat with a wood fire underneath.

The outdoor venue shows was life was like for slaves, sharecroppers and tenant farmers. The grounds have authentically furnished cabins, a sugar house, an overseer's house, kitchen, blacksmith's shop, grist mill, and many artifacts from the past.

Sugar is made today by crushing the cane stalks to squeeze out the sap. The juice goes through a clarifying process and then is boiled into a syrup.

The heat and pressure cause crystals to form, and the mixture is then spun in a giant centrifuge to separate the crystals from molasses. The raw sugar is then refined into white granulated sugar.

Beet sugar

Although cane sugar is the oldest type of sugar in America, today 54 percent of America's sugar production comes from beets.

During the Napoleonic wars, the British blockade of shipments to Europe stimulated an effort to get sugar from beets, and many factories were built in France.

The first successful commercial factory in the United States was constructed in California in 1879

By 2005 there were 23 sugar beet factories operating in 10 states.

Although some pastry chefs say that cane sugar is better in baked goods, "On a molecular level, sugar is sugar, there's no difference," said Richard. Those who prefer cane sugar should read package labels; some proudly proclaim "cane sugar."

About 75 percent of sugar goes into manufactured products; only one-fourth of it is sold to consumers as table sugar, said Richard.