How Sweet It Was

Louisiana's sugar mills are sensual reminders of a region's past.

By Tim Gautreaux

It's late september, and I'm driving west on old Highway 70 in south-central Louisiana to visit my hometown of Morgan City. After I pass over the narrow murk of Bayou Lafourche, I see a nimbus of steam in the distance, above the crop of Louisiana sugar cane that dominates the horizon, the unmistakable sign of a sugar mill warming up its leviathan boilers, its venerable machinery coming alive. The white 200-foot smokestack is visible for miles in all the flatness of this swamp-bound terrain. The locals know that after the first cool snap of the year, when the sucrose rises in the stalks of sugar cane, this factory and others like it throughout southern Louisiana will hiss and billow 24 hours a day as the turbine-driven cane crushers reduce the stalks' juices to molasses. Every stack, vent, pipe, leak, and roof seam will spew white, the constant cloud above the factory hanging in the sunshine like cotton and floating in the night sky like an oyster silvered at the edges by moonlight.

This vapor above the factory's tall, dusty buildings signals the start of the grinding season, which sees a variety of farm equipment pouring out of mill barns and rusty-roofed tractor sheds: grasshopper-like high-crop tractors, lumbering cane-cutting machines, two-wheel wagons, servicing trucks, and 18-wheelers that pull big open-top trailers with steel mesh sides. Traffic suddenly doubles in Louisiana's cane parishes. After a few days, long leaves and dropped cane stalks line the roads. The autumn air takes on a sappy sweetness—for the workers, a prosperous scent—and is laden with syrupy smoke as some fields of cut and reclining cane are set afire to burn the leaves off the stalks. The mill itself is a complex pressure cooker filled with hundreds of tons of boiling molasses and hot brown crystals, its vapors sailing into the next parish on the fall winds. When I smell the mill, I think of gingerbread, and pancakes slathered with cane syrup; the aroma floats everywhere, gets in my clothes; it will follow me home.

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