Dennis Mills — When the weather finally cools and the sugar cane is cut, Clay Chutz finds himself right where his forefathers stood — tending a steaming pot of syrup.
Thirty years ago, Chutz’s late father, Wayne, revived the old-fashioned craft when he grew a crop of sugar cane, pressed out the juice and made a few dozen gallons of the sweet, sticky liquid.
“That’s what he did when he was a kid, and that’s what old-timers do,” says the 50-year-old Chutz. “Same reason I’m doing it. You don’t have many people who do this anymore. That’s kind of the tradition.”
What began as a nostalgic revival of a dying craft at the family’s southern St. Helena Parish home place has become a celebration of community with a few hundred people gathering to cook, listen to music and watch the syrup bubble.
Old-timers come early in the day to check on the syrup making and sip on strong coffee. The youngsters show up later to listen to the band as the sun goes down.
And, because this is Louisiana, there is food.
Pots of jambalaya, smoked brisket, pulled pork and more are stirred and grilled by those competing in the “pits and pots” cook-off, where the crowd’s vote will determine the winner.
When he’s not on syrup duty, Chutz is a Louisiana State Police captain in charge of the bodyguards who protect the governor. And, some years, the governor has come out to mingle with regular folk, far away from news cameras and campaign rallies. Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards dropped by for a little while at this year’s Dec. 5 syrup session.
Cooking syrup isn’t easy — it’s a hot job and takes a lot of time. For three hours on the night before, Chutz labored to squeeze 160 gallons of juice — enough for about 30 gallons of syrup — from a big pile of cane. He used a red, century-old Chattanooga No. 44 mill built to run on mule power. Now it runs with a tractor.
His father found the antique mill in 1985 when he decided he wanted to make syrup the way his family did when he was born in 1915. Wayne Chutz, who died at age 88 in 2003, also built the brick oven and acquired the stainless-steel syrup pan Chutz still uses under a shed next to the barn.
“It was a lot of work back when he did it, and it still is,” says Chutz, who will make several big batches during cane season. “I did it because daddy did it. Daddy’s gone, but I can still hear him hollering at me. I mess up, and I can still hear him. It’s like he’s still here, he and momma.”
In the early morning hours of syrup-cooking day, Chutz fired up the brick oven, throwing in pine logs, which burn hotter than oak. Throughout the day, as the syrup simmers and steam rises from the pan, a foam made of specks of dirt, leaves and roots bubbles to the surface and Chutz skims it off with a net.
For the past three years, Suzanne Edmonson and her husband, State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson, have come out for the syrup cooking. For years, Chutz would give them a bottle of syrup each Christmas, and they had pictured him whipping up a batch of it before the holidays.
Seeing it in action, Suzanne Edmonson says she didn’t realize how hard it is “and what he puts into it — his heart and his soul.”
The colonel, taking a deep whiff of the fragrant steam rising from the pan, says he just “wants to get a biscuit and sop it all up.”
While Chutz and a few others tended the syrup, a couple hundred friends and family members enjoyed the warm December day.
Those competing in the cook-off set up off the dirt road that runs through the family acreage, near the barn overlooking a pond created from an old gravel quarry. The cooks called out to passersby, tempting them to try their jambalaya or brisket or pork. One desperate contestant sent adorable children into the crowd with bowls of barbecued chicken legs, imploring diners to vote for their dish.
Far from the syrup pan, a few teenagers sat on a truck’s tailgate near a row of still-standing cane, talking and listening to a band play Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.
“It’s an outgoing atmosphere,” says 17-year-old LeeAnn Dickerson, of Washington Parish. “You meet new people and socialize.”
About 3:30 p.m., Chutz started testing the syrup, using a special tool called a hydrometer to make sure it’s thick enough, almost as thick as molasses. When it was just right, he put out the fire, filtered the syrup one more time, then bottled it on the spot.
At 4 p.m., 12 hours after Chutz started, a line forms with buyers eager to get the $5 pints of fresh syrup. They say it’s better than anything you can find in a store.
“It’s pure,” Chutz says. “You can watch this process. Cane juice goes in, nothing else.”
To Stoney Hughes, of Prairieville, who has been coming for 12 years, the syrup is a bonus.
“Good people and good food. People talk nice,” he says, summing up the day. “You get away from all that big city stuff.”
This year, for the first time, proceeds from the syrup sales benefitted a cause, a scholarship fund in the name of 12-year-old Gavin Knapp, who died in an all-terrain vehicle wreck in July.