Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Raising Cane in East Texas

Ribbon cane has been a staple in East Texas since the mid 1800s. Those familiar with the East Texas country life probably have heard this phrase: “Pass the biscuits and ribbon cane syrup, please”. This phrase was probably the most frequently spoken phrase sitting around the table at my grandparent’s farm.  Their hearty traditional farm breakfast always included hot biscuits and ribbon cane syrup made in East Texas.  As thick as honey with a strong distinctive flavor, this syrup brings back many happy memories.

At one time, many farms throughout East Texas grew ribbon cane for their own use. An acre of sandy soil could produce enough ribbon cane to yield as much as 300 gallons of syrup. Once harvested, the cane was crushed with large rollers, usually powered by horses or mules, and the juice collected in barrels then fed into special 12 foot long cooking pans.  The long pans were divided into sections and the syrup would be cooked to a specific temperature and the waste skimmed off in each individual section down the length of the pan to produce the final product. Around the 1900s, most commercial cane operations in Texas were drying up.  By the 1950’s, only the old timers talked about making ribbon cane.  Excellent syrup making was considered an art and today that art is celebrated each year at the Heritage Syrup festival in Henderson, TX. The festival is held on the 2nd Saturday of November and includes syrup making demonstrations, folk art, and of course a chance to buy locally made ribbon cane syrup.  

Summer time is not the right season for finding fresh syrup, but AJ and I managed to score a possible source made on a farm in Garrison and sold at a small market in the tiny town of Timpson.  So armed with a challenge, we charted a course to Timpson  and began our journey up highway US 59 to find this stash of locally made ribbon cane syrup. 

Our first stop along our route was the “oldest town in Texas”, Nacogdoches.  This quaint historic town boasts that they have existed under 9 different flags over the course of the last 400+ years.  Although the city was home to Sam Houston for a short time, it’s most notable historic resident was Thomas Jefferson Rusk.  Thomas Jefferson Rusk was the first secretary of war in the Republic of Texas, a general at the battle of San Jacinto, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Republic.  He later went on to serve nearly a decade as a prominent US Senator.  Today, the Stephen F Austin University is located on part of his original homestead in Nacogdoches.

We toured the downtown area stopping at a few of the many antique stores and then it was on to lunch at CC’s Smokehouse.  This casual dining mainstay of the Nacogdoches area is really two restaurants in one with separate barbeque and steakhouse menus. There are even separate windows for placing your order.  We opted for the steak, frankly because we didn’t see the barbeque ordering window when we first walked in.  Although we both love our barbeque, the steak did not disappoint.  Juicy meat with excellent flavor and served Texas barbeque style along with tasty sides made the trip worthwhile.

We continued our trek along the highway with a quick stop at an antique store on the square in Garrison and continued on to Timpson. Once in Timpson, we spied the fortress that held our elusive prize, Miller’s Country Market.  The market, which opened last year, is owned and operated by a local Mennonite family. Mennonites are members of an anabaptist denomination that is often confused with the more conservative Amish church.  They carry fresh baked breads and locally made preserves, a variety of meats and cheeses, and a wide selection of Amish wedding products from Ohio.  The store hours are 9:00-5:30 Thursday and Friday and 9:00-4:30 on Saturday, so plan your trip for an early start if you are coming from the Houston area.

After all that driving, antique shopping, and eating did we find our quarry?  Indeed we did!  The next morning ribbon cane syrup gushed from the glass jar like a mud slide down a mountain side onto my prized homemade pancakes. Life is good, mmm mmm good in Texas Thru Our Back Door!

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