Saturday was the social day with a lot of non-participants attending and a lot of good conversation - visiting, in Appalachian parlance - but from the point of view of learning about stir-offs Friday evening was much more interesting, because it included setting up, stripping and cutting the cane, and squeezing the juice. They were using an old-fashioned cane press but had converted it to be powered from a tractor drive-shaft, which turned the grindstones a lot faster than mules could.
Still, it took at least two hours to feed in a quarter-acre of cane stalks and press out the juice. The end product was a little over a hundred gallons of juice, all of which was poured into a foot-deep, 4'x8' rectangular steel pan. The second day consisted mostly of straining the juice, building the fire under the pan, and boiling the juice. It took almost nine hours to boil the juice down, which Randy said was the longest it had ever taken, and which he blamed on mostly wet wood for the fire.
Two people skimmed foam the whole time the juice boiled, essentially while standing in a steam bath for nine hours. It was only in the last half hour that molasses seemed to come, but it came fast at the end, turning from a thin greenish to a more viscous light-brown liquid topped with golden amber foam..
Cutting the cane and skimming the juice as it boiled were the two labor-intensive and dirty jobs, although Matt Oaks, one of the party, told me what he hated worst was feeding the cane into the mill. He said it was boring and seemed to take forever. For myself, I liked that part best because of the instant gratification. As the cane stalk went in, you could immediately see the juice running out.
As said, Saturday was the social day. The wives brought food and set up lunch for the participants and the hangers-on like us. We contributed, of course, but we brought dessert while we ate mostly soup beans, shuckey beans, sauerkraut fried with weiners, and cornbread, all traditional Appalachian foods and all delicious. It was a good trade-off.
What started as 100 gallons of juice and many hours of labor ended as perhaps ten gallons of molasses. The whole process brought home to me the reality of how hard our ancestors toiled for their food. As I was mulling this over, it occurred to me that the only sources our Appalachian ancestors had for sweetening were honey and molasses. I'm sure a few of them could have afforded sugar, but not many would have been able to. Their cash, when they got it, was usually reserved for salt, which was much more critical, and perhaps shoes.
It took a lot of persistence and unremitting effort to start with cane seed and end up with molasses, with the product being winnowed down and skimmed all the way. That's the way it is with a lot of life,especially the successful bits. The tools are just different.
If you would like to attend a stir-off, there's one held every September in West Liberty, Kentucky. Their web site is http://www.cityofwestliberty.com/sorghumfestival.htm.