Making Sugar with Outlaws in the Old South

Last week I joined Carolyn Binder and her husband Eric on a trip to a homestead deep in the hardwoods of the Florida Panhandle. It was there that we met Bill and Nedra Outlaw and became immersed in their world of self sufficiency and tradition through the arts of winemaking, mead brewing, growing dooryard fruits and of course, making old-fashioned sugar cane syrup. For this suburban 30-year old who grew up as an army brat, those two days steeped in history were nothing short of lifechanging.

Harvesting Cane
Over the last few days, Bill Outlaw has been harvesting, grinding and boiling down sugarcane syrup using more-or-less the same methods that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather used. The cane grinders are now powered without the help of mules, but despite his knowledge gained as a biology professor at Florida State University, Bill has found little need to break the traditions of his ancestors. As it turns out, the country boys got it right the first time and as Bill himself said after explaining the molecular makeup of sucrose and fructose, "This is not science."

Sugar cane harvests were never solitary affairs before, and they were also a lot easier to find. Prior to World War II sugar cane was so commonly grown in the Deep South that entire towns would attend cane grinding parties; social occasions that helped strengthen community and family ties on a yearly basis with potluck dinners and music along with lots of essential hard labor disguised as a party. Sugar cane was - and still is - a prolific crop that anyone could grow. Bill's own sugar cane does just fine without irrigation, and dooryard growers could grow time-tested heirloom varieties like 'Home Green' and 'Ribbon' that were easily chewed or made into syrup.

But then in the second half of the century came an interstate system and a host of other changes. Our families have dispersed across the country, communities and traditions have lost their relevance and sugar has become more affordable, leaving cane grinding parties to fade into distant memory. Though you can find an excess of sugar in more foods and drinks than ever before, tasting real cane sugar and experiencing its creation is a rare treat indeed.

From the minute we pulled up stepped out of the car to shake Bill’s hand, he fell into his role as college professor and began his lesson plan. Of all of the things he taught us about sugar, his first lesson was the most shocking: The average life expectancy of a slave on a sugar plantation was a mere 7-9 years, far less than the amount of time that an inmate would now spend waiting on death row and through much more brutal conditions. On a sugar plantation, it was the work that did you in.

Large scale production still takes its toll on growers, especially those in countries like India; where two farmers committed suicide during the very same week that we visited the Outlaws. In a study put out by Brazilian researchers Rocha, Marziale and Hong, “It was observed that the workers deal with multiple health risk situations, predominantly to the risks of occurrence of respiratory, musculoskeletal and psychological problems and work-related accidents due to the work activities.”

Nowadays sugar is produced by a handful of corporations, represented by U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals in my home state of Florida. The sugar industry played a big role in developing Florida and had it built in its own image with a framework of canals that can easily be seen from space, intersecting the flow of water that historically ran from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades and the Florida Bay.  Sugar plantings around Lake Okeechobee are so extensive that the excess phosphorus and other fertilizers in the runoff have made it possible for algae and cattails to proliferate and take over portions of the Everglades.

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Binder
When sugar cane is grown on a small scale as it was on the Outlaws' homestead, it's easy to see that the impact is minimal. Though Bill had already gone through the effort of harvesting enough sugarcane for the year, he was kind enough to leave a row for the purposes of demonstrating his technique. I took a quick glance at my notebook and heard a few loud ‘THWACK’s in rapid succession, looking up to see that Bill had already cut down one of the ragged stalks and proceeded to cut off the top. A specialized tool that he referred to as an “antique stripper” was used to strip the leaves in one clean motion, revealing a segmented stem resembling that of a bamboo, but definitely more colorful.

Grinding Cane
The next step involved grinding the cane with an antique cane grinder, one of the many on the property. The others lay out in rows with a patina of lichen, forming an open air museum of different models from different places. Huge kettles could be found nearby, looking even more monumental en masse. Grinding the cane seemed to be the most straightforward step, since all we did was feed the canes into the grinder while it poured fresh cane juice into a filtered pail. The flattened and fibrous remains of each cane were spit out into a pile, which we would occasionally rake out of the way to make room for more. This attractive byproduct is known as pomace (or bagasse) and is often used as a biofuel, or simply returned to the soil as compost or mulch.

The cane grinder with a slough of pressed sugar canes, or pomace, at its foot.
But it wasn't grinding cane that I'll remember most about that night, but rather an exchange of gifts and culture that is all but extinct in our modern world of fast and processed food. At some point, Nedra tempted us away from the action with the promise of her homemade finger foods, so we followed her into a beautifully decorated home with custom cabinetry and hand-painted and detailed walls; all done by Nedra, naturally. Carolyn presented Nedra with homemade ricotta cheese prepared just that morning, which we then spread on Nedra's sweet potato bread. Together they tasted like heaven. After enjoying some of Carolyn's pickled brussels sprouts, the conversation then turned to Germany since both Nedra and I had spent time there in the 80's and 90's. I remembered the backerei and gasthaus of my german childhood and feeling a strange symmetry between Carolyn's fermented brussels sprouts and the saurkraut I would have eaten there (Carolyn's was better, by the way), I wanted nothing more to lose track of time and indulge in a bygone era for just a little longer.

We were each given a glass of wine, incidentally made by Bill himself using the muscadine grapes growing behind the sugar mill. I've always been a fan of muscadine wine, but this one had less of the muskiness and sweetness that makes wine aficionados turn their nose up at Southern wines. Leave it to a biologist to understand the inner workings of winemaking. I had to go sing my praises to Bill, who was still grinding cane and discussing chemistry with Eric.

Photo of me trying to figure out a sugar cane, courtesy of Carolyn Binder
Mosquitoes and other insects (likely attracted to the sweet smell) swarmed around us in a frenzy, but luckily most of them seemed too thrown off by the scent to bother biting us... for the most part. Just when I started to notice several mosquitoes fattening up on my arm, Carolyn announced that it was time to make the trip back to Monticello for a good nights' sleep.

Boiling Syrup
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, (so to speak) Bill was now letting the 60 gallon kettle of cane juice come to a rolling boil. There was something truly special about the whole scene. Steam rose from the cauldron, backlit by old-fashioned lanterns behind the clear plastic sheeting and condensing on the watertight ceiling, before dripping on our faces. Nedra served up venison sausage on homemade buttermilk biscuits along with hot coffee, so we indulged ourselves before turning our attention to the big boiling elephant in the room. Bill remained focused and tense; skimming foamy impurities from the surface, checking the temperature and apologizing occasionally for being so quiet.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong during production, and Bill knows that the final moments are the most crucial: Kettles can crack if they aren’t filled to the rim. A small difference in temperature could spell the difference between good syrup and a sticky mess. Or as Bill put it, if you accidentally toppled over the hot syrup "it would be the end of you." He wasn't kidding either: According to Tom Standage's An Edible History of Humanity, an observer of the sugar making process warned that "If a Boyler get any part into the scalding sugar, it sticks like Glew, or Birdlime, and 'tis hard to save either limb or life."

The very instant the sugar reached the perfect 'scalding' temperature, the fans were kicked into high gear and the furnace was shut off so that the syrup could be transferred and filtered one more time before being dispensed into bottles and sterilized. Our pulses raced while we tried fitting into the roles in our assembly line, but as the last bottle was filled, Bill relaxed enough to show me his collection of fruit trees and cane grinders. If that wasn't reward enough, he then had us fill our bags with Satsumas, kumquats and Meyer lemons for the road while patiently answering my questions about all things regarding fruit trees.

A banana inflorescence given to Carolyn for cooking
Old sugar mills preserved for future generations
An assortment of cold hardy citrus: Satsumas, kumquats, citrangequats, sunquats and more.
One of the many old sugar kettles owned by Bill
Tasting Time
By the time I bagged up my last citrangequat, the sugar had cooled enough for us to have a taste of what we've spent the last two days making... and it was something special. This syrup had a wonderfully robust flavor like caramel with a kit of a tangy kick, yet definitely more refined than molasses. So overcome with emotion at the tingling of my taste buds, I blurted out that I would be willing to pay as much as $50 for a bottle of this syrup. 

But the Outlaws aren't in this to make money, but to keep the tradition alive and to share the harvest with friends. With all of the trendy food movements gaining traction nowadays, it comes as a relief to find that at least two people are in it for the long haul. We carried our bottles of syrup to the back porch where Nedra served up glasses of deliciously sweet mead that - you guessed it - Bill made himself. Someone give this man a medal.

Bill's delicious mead left our day with a pleasant dry finish.
I had just witnessed Southern culture and hospitality at its finest. Carolyn's freshly made ricotta cheese spread upon Nedra's homemade sweet potato bread; Carolyns pickled brussels sprouts served alongside Nedra's pickled jalapenos; artisan venison sausage, a handpicked assortment of citrus and homebrewed mead and wine, and all of it finished off with a spoonful of sugar cane syrup.

I got off the interstate towards my Jacksonville suburb and drove through a monotonous corn maze of uniformly planted pine trees peppered with identical strip malls, manufactured homes, fast food joints and chain drug stores throughout. I saw no distinct character in this landscape of sprawl, but it gave me hope to know that there might be another 'Outlaw' tucked away in the slash pines or a subdivision somewhere, rebelliously reclaiming their life from the mundane and indifferent by growing heirloom vegetables, making their own beer or simply letting an old tree grow in honor of an ancestor. Somewhere out there, one could find storytellers, satsumas and patches of sugarcane returning from the stubble.

Bill is all smiles when the sugar is ready for bottling.
I have to admit that when I read Carolyn Binder's account of the trip, my heart sank a little. She described every sensation and emotion so perfectly that I almost decided not to share my own post, so I would urge you to take a bathroom break and check it out immediately.

Footnote: If you'd like to plant sugar cane yourself, Bill recommends the varieties 'Home Green' or CP 31-511 for chewing and CP 36-111, CP 52-48, CP 67-500 for making syrup. Even if you don't plan on chewing them or making sugar, their vertical growth makes them excellent privacy temporary privacy screens and their exposed stems are positively beautiful in their own right. If you have any questions about growing sugarcane or processing it into syrup, Bill has provided an excellent resource on his website, Southern Matters.


  1. Steve, it was great to have you join us for the cane syrup celebration! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about our visit with the Outlaws. What a special and wonderful experience.


  2. That was beautifully written. I felt like I was there with you and I could smell the sweet goodness and taste the yummy foods you were so lucky to have eaten. What a great story and sounds like you now have new friends.

  3. Fabulous post, I live in a similar climate that used to be heavily planted with sugar cane grown by local farmers, but in the last 15 years it has all but gone, large companies have sourced cheaper labour in asian countries. The land was deemed more valuable as real estate for development due to the proximity to the coast and the local mill closed down long ago. Bill and Nedra are amazing and perhaps we could all learn from them.

  4. Very nice Steve : ) Happy you have added yet another experience to your life !

  5. Sounds like a fabulous experience and you really did make it feel like i was coming along with you!


Please feel free to share your questions, ideas and suggestions!