In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Molasses-Colored GlassesWPA and Sundry Sources on Molasses and Southern Foodways
  • Frederick Douglass Opie (bio)

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

After the Louisiana Purchase, sugar cultivation for national and international markets gradually became limited to Florida and Louisiana, but sugar cane was still grown for local consumption in states like Virginia and Alabama. Ashland Belle Helene Plantation (here) produced 24,000 gallons of molasses in the 1870s. Photograph courtesy of the Collections of Library of Congress.

[End Page 81]

Molasses has been one of the three Ms of the diet of southern common folks, along with meat (salt pork) and meal (corn meal). It has served as a baking ingredient, condiment, and cold remedy, and it was central to special-occasion meals in the South. We can draw on a range of sources, including travelers' accounts, autobiography, community studies, WPA narratives, and interviews conducted for the Origins of Soul Food Oral History Project to examine its importance and its changing role in southern foodways.1

Molasses is made from sugar cane and the similar sorghum syrup comes from sweet sorghum grass. Both crops were probably introduced to the New World during the Atlantic slave trade. Travel accounts tell us that West Africans were familiar with both because women merchants made and sold sweets from these plants. Describing a coastal market in Guinea in 1602, the Dutch traveler Pieter de Marees writes:

Very early in the morning, at day-break, the Peasants come to the Market, carrying on their heads two or three bundles of Sugar-cane, like Faggots. They untie the bundles of Sugar-cane and spread them out on the Market-place. Then the Inhabitants of the place come and buy Sugar-cane from the Peasants there, one buying two Canes, another three, according to their needs. Thus these Peasants quickly dispose of their Sugar-cane, for people are accustomed to eat a great deal of it.2

In the sixteenth century the Portuguese established sugar plantations in Brazil, and the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English soon followed suit in the Caribbean and then in the South. English planters in the Caribbean sold molasses along with sugar and rum to Africans, Indians, and the English working class. White colonists in Virginia and the Carolinas also traded for Caribbean molasses, using it in a variety of ways. An anonymous observer wrote, around 1730, "Molasses is generally used throughout all the Northern Colonies, and at our Fisheries, in brewing their Beer, and the poorer Sort, who are very numerous, eat it with their Bread, and make Puddings of it, Ec [sic]." One common use was as a sweetener in "hasty pudding"—oatmeal porridge or cornmeal mush served with butter, milk, and molasses. In many places molasses was also used as feed for both livestock and enslaved Africans.3

After the Louisiana Purchase, sugar cultivation for national and international markets became gradually limited to Florida and Louisiana, but sugar cane was still grown for local consumption in states like Virginia and Alabama. Sweet sorghum, grown primarily in the Midwest in the mid-nineteenth century, had also become a predominantly southern crop by the 1890s. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study done in 1895 and 1896 found that African American farmers in Tuskegee County, Alabama, for example, dedicated some of their fields to raising sugar cane and sweet sorghum, which they "used to make molasses for home consumption," [End Page 82] although "only a part of the molasses used by the farmer is made on the farms, the rest is bought at the stores with other commodities."4


Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 2.

Ninety-year-old Ella "Gold" Baker remembered growing up in the predominantly African American farming hamlet of Cloverdale, Virginia. Every autumn, a one-legged man went from house to house with a portable sugar cane grinder and a vat on a horse-drawn wagon, converting cane growers' small harvests into molasses for a share of the product (typically a third). Grinding a piece of sugar cane with a primitive homemade press, 1942, courtesy of the Collections of Library of Congress.

Others obtained molasses through various systems of barter. Joyce White...

pdf

Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 81-96
Launched on MUSE
2008-02-13
Open Access
No
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.