Sugar, Hot Sauce and Rice

The sugar cane harvest was in full swing when we arrived in Louisiana.  I have always enjoyed learning about how things are grown and produced. Growing sugar cane was something I knew little about.  We first saw fields of sugar cane as we drove the last mile or so to our RV park.  In the weeks ahead as we toured the area, I was amazed at how many sugar cane fields there are in southern Louisiana.

I learned that Louisiana is the second top producer of sugar in the United States after Florida.  Sugar cane has been grown in Louisiana for over 200 years and became the state’s first lucrative cash crop in the 1790’s when a process was developed for successfully granulating sugar.

Processing sugar was first done in kettles like the the one pictured above from the 1800’s.  After the juice was squeezed from the canes, it was boiled in open kettles, removing the water and leaving the syrup.  Additional boiling caused the syrup to crystallize.  People now like to display these old kettles as decoration.

Some where I read that sugar cane fields are burned during harvesting.  I really wanted to see a sugarcane field on fire!   When Mark and I would drive around we sometimes saw dark smoke in the sky, possibly signaling a cane field being burned.  One day we took off in the direction of some smoke but this proved futile.  As we drove it seeemed the smoke was further away, rather than closer!  We laughed that we felt like “tornado chasers” except we were chasing cane field smoke, rather silly I guess.   After some discussion with the locals, I learned that not all cane fields are burned and if they are, it is usually to burn up the leaves that are left when the cane stalks are machine stripped.  In the picture above we found some fields that were being harvested and burned.

One day while visiting a nearby town we saw a sugarcane mill in the distance and headed down a dead end road to get closer.  We ended up at the back of the mill and I tried to see what was going on but a fenced area and bayou were in my way.

We drove closer to the plant and stopped at a field to watch the black smoke billowing out in huge clouds.   The empty cane field in front of us had dark mud that was bubbling up to the surface in many places.  I showed some pictures I took of the mud to some locals to see if they knew what it was but the bubbling mud remained a mystery.  A few people thought it was the pulpy remains after the cane is squeezed of juice (called bagasse) that had been put back in the soil.   We also found out from the locals that the black clouds coming from the sugar cane mill were not smoke but steam!  Below is a picture of cane stalks waiting to be processed across the street from the sugar mill.

Another day while driving a scenic byway we came upon a mill in the town of Jeanerette.   We were able to watch from our car as the stalks were taken from a large pile to a machine that was probably washing them In preparation for crushing and extracting the juice.

It was interesting to have a closer view of a sugar mill in action.  When we visited a local museum after seeing this mill, the docent told us that tours used to be given at the mill but they stopped them due to safety concerns.

At the Jeanerette Museum we learned more about the sugar industry and watched a film showing us the process from beginning to end.  The film was informative but we were reminded that it was put out by the sugar industry when at the end we were told that sugar was a healthy and wholesome product that was not the cause of diseases including diabetes.

I so enjoy a good factory tour and on many trips I have searched out if there are any tours in the areas we will be visiting.  It seems to me though, that factory tours are on the decrease.   In the California Central Valley where we lived for many years there were a few tours like the Hershey Factory in Oakdale and the Sunmaid Raisin Plant in Selma that at one time had great tours, but no longer.  Some trips have had several factory tour opportunities in one city or area.   A number of years ago, my sister Barbara and I were passing through the Henderson/Las Vegas area with several of our kids and toured Ocean Spray Cranberry, Favorite Brands Marshmallow and Ethel M. Chocolates.  I can still remember drinking as many varieties of cranberry juice as we wanted at the end of the Ocean Spray tour.  Except for Ethel M. Chocolates, the other two tours stopped many years ago.

The Tabasco company located on Avery Island has a great tour.  Edmund McIlhenny developed the recipe for the original red pepper sauce in 1868 and the same recipe is used today after being passed down from generation to generation in the same family.  The Tabasco tour gives you a good look at the process from the growing of the peppers to the bottling of the sauce.  Avery Island, although not a true island is in a unique area surrounded by marshes and bayous and on top of a huge salt dome.  The salt mined here is used in making the pepper mash which has only three ingredients:  peppers, vinegar and salt.

The tour starts at the visitor center where you buy tickets and then do a self guided walk through the different stages of production.  In the barrel warehouse you view the oak barrels that were previously used for Jack Daniel’s Whiskey.  Red pepper mash is mixed with salt and aged for up to three years in the barrels.  A thick layer of salt is placed on top to protect the mash.

After the mash is aged, it is strained to remove skins and seeds and the resulting liquid is mixed with vinegar and stirred occasionally in large closed vats for a month until ready to be bottled.

In the last processing room we saw different sized bottles of sauce going through bottling and labeling.   A sign tells you how many bottles have been processed that day and also where the bottled sauce will be sent.  The day we were there sauce was being bottled for shipment to Germany.

The final exhibit room held some interesting facts and history about Tabasco Sauce.   The huge bottles were fun to see.  Mr. McIlhenny first packaged the sauce in discarded long-necked cologne bottles, the only bottles he found readily available in the post Civil War South.  This style of bottle continues to this day since it works well for sprinkling the pepper sauce.

Perhaps the highlight for many visitors is the gift shop and tasting room.  There is an amazing variety of Tabasco related products for sale.  Visitors can taste every kind of Tabasco sauce available as well as other products such as salsas and even cola.  Mark tried the Scorpion sauce reportedly made with “the most piquant pepper in the world.”  Based on his reaction I don’t think he would dispute that claim.

The most unique sample I tried was the Tabasco flavored ice cream.  There were two varieties – the green pepper and raspberry chipotle.  Tabasco flavored ice cream is an acquired taste – the peppery heat with cold is a little strange.

Avery Island is also the home of Jungle Gardens, a large and beautiful nature sanctuary.  Created by Mr. McIlhenny, it includes a driving tour where you can see a Chinese garden, groves of bamboo, palms, plants and flowers including many camellia bushes.  There are ponds and marshes with alligators, turtles and other wildlife.  The centerpiece of the gardens is the bird rookery where thousands of snowy egrets return to nest each spring.

My favorites here were the massive oaks dripping with moss that were in abundance as we drove through the gardens.

Rice is an important crop in Louisiana and is the 3rd state in production after  Arkansas and California.  What I found interesting is that the rice fields are used not only for growing rice, but also for producing crawfish.

The rice is grown in a water filled field from March to July and then the crawfish are seeded into the rice field in June.  The field is drained and the rice harvested in July/August.  When the rice is being harvested, the crawfish have dug themselves into the ground where they are safe.  The rice fields are then reflooded again and it becomes a crawfish pond as the crawfish emerge and are subsequently caught in special traps.  Crawfish are harvested in specially designed boats that we saw out in the fields a few times.  The harvest time can vary but can start as early as November in a warm year and go through the spring.  Above is a picture of a rice field with the red topped traps in place.  Below is a picture of a crawfish trap I found at a museum.

In the small town of Jeanerette is the oldest rice mill in the United States.  The Conrad Rice Mill was built in 1912 and has continued to operate since the beginning.  I took a tour of the mill where I was shown some of the old machines that are still used in processing and bagging rice.

Next door to the mill is the Konriko Company Store that sells rice related products from the mill as well as other local food items and souvenirs.  The store features a different rice each day that visitors can sample.  We bought several different boxes of brown rice to try and recently cooked up one of them – it was quite good.

Thanks for checking in and best wishes for the new year to come!

How about all of you?  Have any of you visited or toured an interesting factory?  Would love to hear about your experiences and/or recommendations.

4 thoughts on “Sugar, Hot Sauce and Rice”

  1. Beth, you have GOT to put all your travel stories into a book. You are a good writer, photographer and your travel stories are wonderful
    I’ll be the first buyer of your book!

    1. Thanks Bonnie for such a wonderful comment! We would like to get the blog articles in a bounded format, if nothing else for our own remembrance. There is one site we found but it did not get favorable reviews. This is something we need to research. Thanks so much for your support!

  2. My favorite factory tour was a coffee plantation/factory in the Congo. The machinery and set up appeared, let’s say antique, it was fun to see beans grown around the factory to ground and packaged. We bought two bags of ground roast at the factory which we mailed home from Rwanda in a large box with many other items. When we got home at the end of all our travels and opened the box we discovered grounds everywhere in the box, border patrol agents opened the box to investigate and cut it open! Second would be the Boeing factory, truly incredible. I have memories of the Hershey Factory as a kid, sad to think these experiences are becoming less rare. I love the story of you guys chasing down the smoke to look at a burning field. Curiosity and excitement is so uplifting and contagious.

    1. A great comment Matt and interesting story about the coffee! I would love to see the Boeing Factory some day – it has always been on my list of factories to visit! I believe it is the largest factory in the United States?

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