Louisiana has sweet spot for sugar
Sugar a staple of the kitchen, but cane is also a driving force in Louisiana’s history, its economy and even the character of its countryside. (Photos by Ian McNulty)
Stirred into coffee or baked into desserts, sugar is often a sweet finish for the palate. In Louisiana, however, sugar is more of a foundation than a finale. It’s a staple of the kitchen but also a driving force in Louisiana’s history, its economy and even the character of vast areas of its countryside. The sugar boom here kicked off after 1795, the year when Etienne de Boré first successfully converted Louisiana cane juice into sugar crystals at his plantation in what is now New Orleans. Sugar quickly became the region’s most important crop, and during the antebellum period most U.S.-grown sugar came from Louisiana. With huge properties worked by slaves, sugar planters built immense wealth and showed it off with opulent plantation homes, like those found along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Some of the surviving plantations now open for public tours, including St. Joseph Plantation and Evergreen Plantation, still bring in commercial cane harvests, giving visitors a sense of the past and a glimpse of modern day agriculture in one stop. Louisiana remains the nation’s second-largest sugar producer, and travelers will see active sugar operations all over the southeastern and south-central parts of the state. Cane is planted right up to the edge of the road in many areas, growing lush, green and high by late summer. In the fall and spring, it’s common to see cane fields being cleared by controlled burns, adding great brown plumes of aromatic smoke to the landscape. During harvest time, sugar wagons clattering off to the mills are common sights on country roads. Around the Acadiana town of Abbeville, some of those wagons may be bound for C.S. Steen’s Syrup Mill, the century-old maker of Steen’s 100% Pure Cane Syrup, a key ingredient in many Southern dessert recipes. Other traditional Louisiana sweets also rely on the local abundance of sugar, especially pralines, those simple candies of pecans, sugar and butter that have long been associated with New Orleans. Today, sugar even finds its way into one of the toasts of the town, Old New Orleans Rum, a local brand of spirits made using Louisiana cane.