While I was in Louisiana last week, I toured a sugar refinery, and now I look at my Champion juicer with new eyes.
Louisiana is one of the few states (Florida, Texas, and Hawaii are the others) that can grow sugarcane, a crop that requires a tropical or sub-tropical climate. It’s indigenous to South Asia, and it was one of the first plants the far-seeing Portuguese, anticipating the popularity of soft drinks, brought from the Old World.
While it’s growing, sugarcane doesn’t look promising. It’s just a long, woody stalk with thin green leaves. There are no enticing fruits or promising tubers or aromatic leaves. It’s all stem. Cut a section out of that stem, though, and chew on it, and everything changes. It tastes exactly like the fine-grained white crystals in the sugar bowl.
That’s where the refinery comes in. To turn sugarcane from woody stem to white crystals, the juice of the cane has to be extracted, and the sugar precipitated from the juice.
The plant we toured was the Cora Texas plant, in White Castle, Louisiana. It processes about 600 truckloads of sugarcane, each about thirty tons, every day during the harvest season, which lasts for a couple of months. Their end product is light brown sugar (which can then be further refined –somewhere else – into the white stuff).
The cane comes in already stripped of most of its leaves and cut into sections. The load gets dumped onto a conveyor belt, which takes it through a diabolical machine that cuts it with rotating blades. Once it’s cut small, it’s crushed, and the juice that gets squeezed out is collected and the sugar extracted.
It’s exactly like the Champion juicer. The raw materials go down the chute, the rotor with the blades cuts it and squeezes it, and the juice comes out the bottom. Sure, the refinery has a few more complicated operations. The cane juice is heated so the water evaporates, and the supersaturated solution is then seeded with crystals so the sugar in it precipitates out. Then it goes into giant centrifuges so the sugar is separated from what’s left, which is blackstrap molasses. But the principle is the same.
The refining process also helps explain why our chickens aren’t enthusiastic about the pulp that’s leftover after the Champion does its job. In the refinery, what’s left of the sugarcane after the juice is extracted is burned to generate electricity to power the plant. Because my Chicken isn’t yet fluent, I didn’t understand what they were saying when we brought plates of beet and carrot crumbles up to their run. “This isn’t food,” was the message, “This is fuel.”
I’m still not sure I need to own a Champion juicer, but you have to respect an appliance whose big brother is a refinery.
(Thanks to my fellow food writers for the pictures. Claire Walter, at Culinary Colorado, took the one of the cane on the conveyor, and Elisa Bosley, at Delicious Living, took the one of the giant sugar pile. I, genius that I am, took my camera on the trip but left the battery at home in the charger.)