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Sweetners in the Old West


One item often not fully understood when learning about foods of this time period is sweetening.  Many have the Idea that molasses and honey were what most folks used.  Well it gets more complicated than that.  I'm going to make several posts on this in the next couple of days, but to start out we'll cover molasses. 

Molasses is a thick sweet syrup that contains a lot of sugar, it is very dark and has a flavor ranging from mild to strong.  In the west of our time period there were two main sources, on was a mostly homemade or at least what you would call a locally made product.  This is what we call sorghum molasses or simply sorghum.  In areas with enough rainfall, (24 or so inches of rain a year or more) one of several varieties of a sweet sorghum could be grown.  Sorghum is a plant of the grass family and of the genus Sorghum, the type grown to make molasses is similar to the grain Milo that is also of the genus Sorghum, but grows several feet tall.

This was planted in the spring and harvested in late in the summer or early in the fall.  This was done while there was still plenty of juice in the stalk.  The stalks were cut down and the leaves were removed.  The stalks were run between steel rollers to crush it and remove the juice.  One person often owned these rollers and the owner would crush the sorghum for the whole neighborhood and get a share of it.  Horse, mule or oxen most often turned these.

The juice was then put in large pans and a fire built under it and it was stirred to prevent burning until a large percent of the water had evaporated and the green juice had turned almost black. 

This was then put in jars, jugs or barrels to store it and any excess a family had was sold or traded for other products.

In some areas with a little searching one can still find sorghum molasses on the store shelf.  Sorghum molasses is stronger in flavor than some of the lighter varieties of molasses that is made from sugar cane, but in my not always so humble opinion it is the best tasting molasses.

Sugar can also be made from sorghum, but very seldom was the equipment to refine it around.

The other kind of molasses was mostly a by-product of sugar refining; most of the sugar of the time was made from sugar cane, another member of the grass family.

The flavor of the molasses depended on how much of the sugar had been extracted.  The lighter types with more sugar were considered higher grade and cost more.  The strongest flavored with the most sugar extracted was called blackstrap and was considered an inferior grade, but was widely used to save money. 

Most of the sugar used and of course the sugar cane molasses used came from the Caribbean region or Louisiana.  Because of the much higher production this was the type of molasses used in the regions with out local production and often even in these areas since it was often considered being of higher quality.
One thing I found out when I started to really research the cooking was those who do a little Old West cooking often misunderstand sugar it’s self.  Many folks have came into a more modern world from doing the fur trade era (Pre-1840) They have done a lot of research in the past, they just of don't realize what radical advancement have been made in 40-50 years. 

Most fur trade era folks use the brown sugar that comes in a cone; this is still made in Mexico and can be bought in almost any store that carries Hispanic Groceries.  These cones are hard and need to be ground or grated and the sugar contains a lot of molasses.  These still were around in our time period, but were considered an inferior grade of brown sugar and were often used in Indian trade and as government presents.  Also of course it was easier to divide these up among a band of Indians than it was to divide a barrel of granular brown sugar.  Also these were still used a lot among the Hispanics in the South West US.

When you went into a grocery store to buy brown sugar in our time period you most often either bought a barrel of granular brown sugar or the grocer weighed out the amount you wanted or it was put in a paper sack. (Note: Machine made paper sacks date to the early 1870's so often storage and display of foods can be handled by a cheap bag of paper lunch sacks.)

Often the brown sugar in the barrel got hard and a auger had to be used to get it out.  It also often had to be run through a coffee grinder.  By the 1890's sugar along with many other items started to be packaged in more convenient sized boxes of 1,2 and 5 pounds.  This was the beginning of getting away from the bulk items.

The brown sugar used at this time was real brown sugar; it was less refined than white sugar.  Today most brown sugar used is white refined sugar that molasses has been added to and tumbled back into.  At first glance this does not make sense but with modern manufacturing it really does.  It just simply costs more to partly refine the sugar on a smaller scale.  The desired amount to make into brown sugar can be taken to another line where it is put into what looks like a cement mixer and the molasses is added and tumbled in. 

Re, unrefined brown sugar in boxes can often be found today, it is often called "Sugar in the Raw" and yes the cost is about 4-10 more than the "Modern" brown sugar.  I simply buy the modern because I mostly cook for large groups and savings is important.  The end result is so close few will know, how many knew that before I told you.

White refined sugar was even more expensive than brown sugar; mass production makes this reversed today.  From the time sugar was first brought to Europe till about the time of the Civil War, White refined sugar was sold as a large lump and pieces were broke off and ground.  In fact a special pair of tongs called a sugar pincher was made to break of the chunks of white loaf sugar and of course the cones of brown sugar.

By the 1850's powdered sugar was also being sold to make finer grades of icing and to sprinkle on baked goods.

This sugar used in the US was of the cane sugar type till very late in our period.  During the Napoleonic Wars, much of Frances sugar from overseas was cut off, recent discoveries had shown that certain varieties of beets had a high sugar contend.  This is the start of sugar extracted from beets, but in the United States the growing and extraction of beet sugar did not get really going till the late 1890's and really did not become important till after the turn of the 20th century.

The early settlers on the East Coast quickly found a solution to their sugar problem, they learned it from the natives, maple tree sap contains sugar.  By drilling a hole and inserting a spigot in the tree early in the spring allowed this sap to run into buckets.  This sap was boiled down to evaporate most of the water producing maple syrup or as it was often called, maple molasses.  Further reduction allowed it to crystallize and become maple sugar.

The New England states have an abundance of maples especially the fine one called the Sugar Maple, although all maple tree sap contains some sugar, but not near as much as the sugar maple.

The problem was as folks moved west the trees became much scarcer.  By the time they got to the Great Plains the source pretty well petered out, although there are accounts in my area of sugar starve homesteaders tapping and making a very low quality of maple syrup from the Box Elder tree, a form of maple that was one of the predominate trees along the creeks in Eastern Nebraska and Kansas.

With the railroads providing cheaper and quicker transportation, there was a lot of maple syrup imported from back east, although there is very strong evidence that in this time before the Pure Food and Drug laws that there was a lot of adulteration of what was often called Pure Vermont Maple Syrup.  I ran into some interesting facts in some of my research.  In the 1880's railroad shipping records prove there was more Pure Vermont Maple syrup imported into the Dakota Territory than the total production of this syrup in the state of Vermont. 

Another solution to the sweetener problem was honey; the problem with this is that the honeybee is not native to the Western Hemisphere.  The first honeybees were brought into the Plymouth Colony in the 1630's.  Also they were brought into Texas and California about the same time. 

The hives used to raise the bees were mostly either the wicker type ones that are one of the symbols of the Mormons in Utah or were hollow sections of tree trunks, most often of Black Gum, a tree that is often naturally hollow.  Theses hives are not as productive as the modern hives using suppers and the honey could only be harvested once or twice a year, unlike the 3-5 times of the modern supper, an invention that came along about the turn of the century.

It is said that the escaped swarms moved to the west from the eastern seaboard about 15-25 miles ahead of the settlers.  This made wild swarms that nested in hollow trees and provided a source of wild honey for those who could locate a swarm and was willing to cut the tree to harvest it.

When the bees reached the Great Plains there were two problems, one a lack of trees suitable to nest in and a lack of suitable flowering plants to provide the nectar to make the honey.  Most bee swarms in the Great Plains nest in 75+ year old cottonwood trees.  These nests are often high up and with trunks 6+ feet in diameter, it is a lot of work to cut one down and harvest the dark, strong flavored honey they contained.

Very little honey production was done in this area till the era of the modern super and the plantings of Lucerne (alfafa) and the different types of clover that were planted for hay and pasture.  Most of the honey in this area in our time period also had to be shipped in from back east.

Now a bit on a mystery I've never been able to clear up fully.  I found reference but not real recipes for items that could not be likely made with out corn syrup, real corn syrup not the modern High Fructose type that has ruined our sodas.  I found out quickly that Karo Brand came out in 1904 and was a spin off of a sugar company.  Many phone calls to places ranging from the Corn Board, Karo Syrup and even a Doctor of Food Sciences at NU all came up with the same thing.  No one knew anything about who developed it when and why.

The interesting thing was, sugar was made from corn by the 1850's but there was not much done with it because it was more expensive than cane sugar and the later beet sugar.  Corn Starch, often called corn flour, dates to the 1840's and corn syrup is made from a by-product of that process.

So what was done with the by-product of this industry?  Also there was and still is a product called sugar cane syrup, a similar product to corn syrup, it is just syrup before the sugar and molasses was extracted.  This brings us back to the fact that in the 1880's more "Pure Vermont Maple Syrup" was imported to the Dakotas alone, than the total Maple Syrup production of Vermont.  Also I found out that Log Cabin Brand syrup came out in the 1880's and used 25% maple syrup and 75% artificially flavored sugar cane syrup. 

Yes artificial flavors, made from coal tar were first developed in the late 1870's vanilla and maple being the first two.  Do you suppose that some of that "Pure Vermont Maple Syrup" was artificially flavor corn syrup?  You decide, just remember 1904 was a time there was great demands to clean up adulteration in the Food and Drug Industry.  The Pure Food and Drug Act were passed in 1906.  Maybe someone cleaned up their act some before the law was passed. 

I don't want this to reflect on the modern Karo Company because if my theory is true those involved are long dead, but it does seem funny they have no records, most companies do and I get a lot of my information from company historians who love to help with my study.  The lady who I talked to at Karo felt bad she couldn't answer my questions. 

What I have decided is that sugar cane syrup and corn syrup are interchangeable products and since sugar cane syrup is hard to find in my area (I've only found it once) I will use corn syrup where needed.


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