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Thu January 20, 2011
Louisiana's Sweet Spot for Sugar
By Ian McNulty
New Orleans, La. –
Stirred into coffee or baked into desserts, sugar is often a sweet finish for the palate. In Louisiana, however, sugar is more of a foundation than a finale. It's a staple of the kitchen but it's also been a driving force in Louisiana's history, the state's economy and even the character of vast areas of the Louisiana countryside.
This is all grist for the mill for a new exhibit at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in downtown New Orleans. Called "Tout de Sweet: All About Sugar," the exhibit tells the story of sugar in Louisiana from its earliest days as a colonial cash crop to the major industry that hums around it today. The exhibit is open daily, and the Southern Food & Beverage Museum is hosting a series of Saturday events in conjunction with the sugar theme.
More on that in a moment, but first, a bit on the often overlooked but intriguing history of cane in Louisiana. Simply put, sugar transformed our state. In its lean early colonial days, Louisiana only scratched along on earnings from indigo and tobacco exports. Its economic output was miniscule compared to the more developed island colonies in the Caribbean, which were planted practically from shore to shore with sugar and worked by ever growing numbers of African slaves. But the 1791 slave revolt on St. Domingue, or present day Haiti, chased many experienced sugar planters to Louisiana, and in 1795, some of these exiles were involved with the first large-scale commercial sugar harvest in Louisiana. That landmark harvest was brought in from the plantation of Etienne de Bor in the area of today's Audubon Park in New Orleans, and with that the sugar boom was on. Cane moved up the river and soon the highly lucrative cash crop was swaying along the banks of the Mississippi, and along the course of Bayou Teche and Bayou Lafourche. The boom created vast wealth for some, while also fueling demand for evermore slaves. The crop's legacy would reverberate for countless generations.
Today, Louisiana is the nation's second-largest sugar producer, and travelers in our region can spot the evidence everywhere. Drive around the countryside of south Louisiana, even just a few miles outside of New Orleans, and you'll see vast fields of sugar cane edging right up to the roadside and spreading to the distance. During harvest time, country roads are crossed by sugar wagons clattering off to the mills, spilling the occasional stray stalk as they go, while in the fall and spring, you see the stubbly fields being cleared by controlled burns, adding dark towers of brown, aromatic smoke to the landscape.
You can learn much more about the sugar story at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, and on some days you can get a taste of it there too. This Saturday, Jan. 22, at 2 p.m., representatives from Aunt Sally's Praline Shop will discuss Louisiana's traditional sugary confection, while next Saturday, Jan. 29, also at 2 p.m., museum staff will explore the historic role of sugar and rum in New Orleans. Dig in a bit, and you'll find that sugar, this everyday commodity, has a history and heritage here all its own.
Southern Food & Beverage Museum
500 Port of Orleans Pl.
Riverwalk Marketplace (Julia Street entrance)