15 May 2009

Benito vs. the Sugarcane

A few weeks ago I picked up a single piece of sugarcane at Mercado Latino, the international grocery store at Winchester and Kirby. Sadly, a 5'8" guy with a red beard carrying a stalk of sugarcane slightly taller than himself looks like a humorous outtake from The Lord of the Rings.

What do you do with it when you get home? Well, I'm going to assume that you're not going to refine your own sugar or distill rum. You probably want pieces of sugar cane to use as garnish for a mojito or just because you're curious. And I'm going to tell you to be really careful. During the whole preparation stage, I was sure I was going to lose a finger. It's one thing to lop off sugarcane with a machete; it's another to cut and trim it carefully in a kitchen. There's an excellent online tutorial if you'd like some pointers.

I didn't need a hammer with my blade. I used an Asian-style cleaver that was handmade by a friend of my father named Tom Erwin. Dad gave it to me as a gift back in 1997, and if you click on the photo you can see that date etched in the blade near the handle. Also, there's a bit of oxidation, which is natural with carbon steel. I don't use this knife a lot, but if I have a venison haunch or pork shoulder to deal with, I know what I'm pulling out of the drawer.

A few whacks between the joints, and then carefully stripping down the sides, and I had more than enough fresh sugarcane. Just understand that I drew on my lengthy experience in cutting wood with an axe rather than any kitchen techniques--sugarcane is solid, not hollow like bamboo. If you're not paying attention there's a good chance of hurting yourself, damaging a countertop, or ruining a cutting board. Whatever you do, everything is going to get sticky. It's worse than being around little kids on Halloween.

I carved out short skewers, which I used for chicken thighs and tiger shrimp. Honestly, the sugarcane didn't add much flavor, but the diners enjoyed the meaty flavor that soaked into the cane. I don't see myself doing much cooking in the future with sugarcane, but I'm glad to know how to use it. And it's a culinary ingredient with a long and fascinating history.

This otherwise unremarkable member of the grass family has had a huge impact on humans and the political map of the world over the past 500 years. France traded away most of its Canadian holdings in favor of Caribbean islands that could produce sugar. The "triangular trade" between West Africa, North America, and Europe was all about sugar and fueled the devastating legacy of slavery in the Western hemisphere. Even patterns of Moorish Muslim conquest in Europe and North Africa can be traced by plantings of sugarcane.

That's right, nations have risen and fallen, peoples have been enriched and enslaved, and borders have shifted all because of the human sweet tooth, and a sugar-rich grass that originated in Southeast Asia.


Samantha Dugan said...

I used to spend summers in Mexico when I was little, my Grandparents were ex-pats...I grew up chewing those fibrus sticks and sucking out the sweet juice. The little ladies in the open markets used to love giving to me, not sure my Grandparents loved it though! But much like you found out, it was a lot of work for not that much reward, I ended up being a junkie for the fresh hot tortillas the ladies would fold and shove in the, "little blondie with the dark skin and dirty bare feet's" pockets.

Benito said...


I tried chewing on a piece, and while it was tasty, I'm just not a big fan of sweets. When I was a little kid I used to chew on all sorts of things, and would much prefer the drier flavors of oak or ash branches, a pencil, or the greatest salty, savory treat ever: the laces on my baseball mitt.

Let the record state that I didn't have pica, I wasn't consuming any of these things, I just really liked to chew.

As to the last bit of your comment, there are few things as wonderful and satisfying as fresh flat breads that are made with love. Whether you're talking about tortillas or pitas or naan or johnnycakes, they all bring a smile to my face.


fredric koeppel said...

excellent post. the best kinds of history lessons don't derive from the lives of great or infamous men but from the details of daily life and cultural, agricultural and economic forces that sway and shape them.

Big Mike said...


Thanks for a chance to Remember Tom Erwin. I too have a couple of his knives and love them. Great post as always my friend

Benito said...


Next year Alton Brown is putting out a miniseries called "Foods That Changed the World". I'm glad that Food Network is going to have some food history that's not about candy for a change.


They are good knives, aren't they? I've got one that's more of a short sword than a knife. You could behead an alligator with it.

Allen said...

Thanks for the comments about Tom Erwin. Have sent link to someone that will get the story to him.