Sweet history lesson comes from sugarcane syrup

Dade City man continues sugar cane tradition, hopes to pass it on

The dew still hung on the spider web that dangled from the barbed wire fence. The morning air was still a bit crisp as Steve Melton grabbed his cane knife.

“I’m kind of a new breed of farmer,” he said as he trudged through the high grass on his way past the fence. “I get up at seven and get started about eight.”

The morning work was light this day thanks to the heavy load he hacked through the night before. An acre of sugarcane stalks sat waiting on a trailer bed. The last few still on the ground were about to join them.

A few quick hacks and the harvest was complete. Melton and three spry teenagers prepared the 100-year old mill to squeeze out the cane juice.

“It’s a lot of work and a lot of people do a lot of work to do this stuff,” said 12-year old Hannah. “This is the stickiest process I’ve ever done.”

The mill squealed to life, powered by a long canvas band wrapped around its spindle and old tractor pully 30 feet away. The hum of the gas engine pierced the quiet farm morning. As the mill spun, Hannah’s sister, Emily, fed cane stalks through the wheel press. Juice spouted out the shoot in the side and into a bucket.

“Look at the juice coming out,” said Melton with a smile. “This just gets me pumped up.”

The trailer was emptied in about 45 minutes. The hands of Melton’s young helpers were sticky and black from all the dirt and juice. A hose carried the nectar around the corner and into a 60-gallon cast iron drum being heated by a wood-burning stove underneath. Inside the syrup barn, Melton sipped the juice. It’s not as sweet as he’d like.

“We’ll be lucky to get two gallons,” he told a longtime friend, Melvin Brinson, a fellow cane syrup cook.

This is the first cooking of the season for Melton, who took up the tasty craft 15 years ago in order to plug back into the heritage art. He grew up in Dade City and wanted to return to the form of cooking that provided sweet desserts for local a century before.

“I would say this is his favorite thing,” said Spencer, and a young man who helped feed cane through the mill. “That makes it better having all the kids coming around be able to do it with him and be able to pass on the tradition to the younger generation.”

Melton meticulously eyed the thermometer hanging in the now bubbling cane juice. The reading said 190-degrees. It was time to skim off the impurities. Children came in from outside to help scoop grimy green slime off the surface of the cane juice. The cleaner the top of the juice, the cleaner the syrup will be in the end.

“Perfect,” praise Melton as Emily sifted out a glob of green gook. The syrup was coming along nicely.

“I don’t want it to die out a tall because I want other people to appreciate it,” she said.

That’s the point of the exercise for Melton. His motto, ‘We invest in the future by preserving the past’, has become a common lesson for kids who come to his cookings. He did 14 last year and sends his helpers home with a bottle of syrup for their troubles each time.

He hopes they leave with much more.

“It’s how it used to be,” said his wife, Sandy. “He just enjoys the heritage arts and bringing back the memories of how things used to be.”

Usually, the syrup house is filled with dozens of people when Steve cooks down the juice into thick syrup. The entire process, from the ground to bottle, takes about eight hours. It can’t be rushed.

“The technology is overtaking so much of our lives,” said Steve. “There is an internal desire to simplify at times.

“What I want to the kids to take away is understanding some of the history of how the generations before me lived, how I’m living and trying to preserve the history and then maybe they have an interest or sparks an interest for them to preserve it for their next generation.”

The man with a gentle tone and genuine chuckle draws people of all ages to his side. Steve pulled up a chair after letting the syrup cool a bit to bottle the treasured treat. Kids took turns passing out bottles and labeling the final product. Steve peers out from under his cowboy hat and smiled.

The final day’s tally was around four dozen bottles of pure cane syrup that was growing in his fields that day before. The memories that grew around the experience will surely last longer than the sugary spoils.

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