January 2008
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Fifth Generation Syrup Maker 'Sticking' With the Art

By Jaine Treadwell

The chilly December breeze whipping around the syrup shed couldn’t fan the yellow jackets away from the sweet stuff.

They buzzed around the door and bumped softly into the window panes, just hoping to find a way inside.

But Joe Todd was having none of that. He was not about to have any ‘impurities’ in his syrup —- not even a yellow jacket coming to sample the sweetness.

Todd laughed.

"I don’t have any impurities in my syrup, so the yellow jackets better keep away," he said. "I don’t say it because it’s ours but you just won’t find any syrup better than this."

Todd was busy skimming the syrup and keeping track of the temperature of the boiling, bubbling golden liquid.

"I usually heat the syrup to 228 degrees but with this Louisiana syrup, I’m just going to 222," he said. "It doesn’t have a lot of water in it. We’ll get about 18 gallons of syrup out of this 80-gallon kettle. That’s good.

"My wife bottles the syrup and she likes it pretty thick. It could come off at 220 degrees but it would be too thin for her."

This year alone, Joe and Edria Todd will make and bottle about 8,500 bottles of cane syrup. That’s a lot of syrup for anybody to make anybody except a fifth generation syrup maker.

As thick and sticky as cane syrup is, there’s a good bit of doubt as to whether it can get in a man’s blood.

Joe Todd is living proof that it can.

Todd is a fifth generation syrup-maker. Syrup is in his blood and he takes great pride in that.

"We go back, at least, to my great-great-grandfather, Thomas Todd, who was a syrup maker in Georgia," Todd said. "The story my dad, L.D. Todd, told was that his dad, Billy Todd, then age 11, and his grandfather, Thomas Todd, were stripping cane in late October 1864, when they saw his dad, Eli Todd, walking home from the Civil War. The three of them made syrup in the fall of 1864. So, I come from a long line of syrup makers."

L.D. Todd, was the syrup maker in the Tennille-Hamilton Crossroads area of Pike County for many years, including the "Hard Times" years.

Todd said the syrup makers of old were the lifeblood of rural Southern communities during and after the Great Depression.

If it had not been for the syrup makers, life would really have lost much of its sweetness back then, Todd said.

"During the Depression, there was no money to buy sugar and all people had was syrup for a sweetener," Todd said. "The syrup maker was one of the most important people in the community. His services were vital."

World War II brought the country out of the Depression but, during wartime, sugar was rationed so the syrup maker maintained his high status in the community.

"My daddy told me that he remembered loading a 28 Model panel truck with syrup and, when they got to the grocery store, people were lined up waiting to get it," Todd said.

When Todd was ready to make a career choice in life, syrup making had become more of a novelty than a necessity.

But, syrup making was in his blood so when he retired about 10 years ago, he found his way back to the syrup kettle.

"It was just something that I wanted to do and I thoroughly enjoy it," Todd said. "That’s how we make our living now, with cane juice, cane syrup, seed cane and chewing cane."  Joe and Edria Todd have a syrup business just outside of Dothan near Cottonwood and have found a market for the sweet stuff year around.

"Five acres might not seem like much but when it’s five acres of sugar cane, it’s a lot," Todd said, laughing. "We plant a lot of varieties of cane. In fact, we probably have the largest variety of sugar cane in the state. We’ve got sugar cane, chewing cane, syrup cane and seed cane." Todd said he favors syrup cane because it will not crystallize on you.

"But sugar cane will," he said. "And, chewing cane is different from the other canes. It’s got tiny fibers so it will wad up like chewing gum. You have to know about cane and about the different varieties if you’re going to be a syrup maker."

Todd said the land and the way the syrup is made will depend on the quality of the sweetener.

"The land is real important," he said. "You can’t plant cane on land that has impurities on it. If you do, you’ll get syrup that’s so bitter you can’t eat it."

A case in point is a Louisiana variety of sugar cane that’s so clear and pretty that its syrup looks like gold - a Todd specialty.

"We went to Louisiana and got the cane and brought it home and planted it," Todd said. "When we made syrup from it, you couldn’t eat it because it had that wild taste - that bitter taste. I couldn’t figure it out. Then, I remembered that peanuts had been

planted on that land. The chemicals that had been used on the peanuts gave the cane that wild taste. The next year, the syrup was edible

and the next year it was even better. All of the impurities were out of it. Now, the syrup that comes off that land is as light and golden as it can be. I learned that you can’t plant cane behind peanuts."

Todd said some weekend syrup makers don’t know how to make cane syrup and, in their attempt, they give cane syrup a bad name.

"There’s an art to making cane syrup," he said. "If you don’t know how to make it, you’re going to come up with a syrup that has a wild, bitter taste that nobody is going to want. We work hard to make sure that Todd’s Syrup is best that you can buy and we’ll stand by it."

The Todds don’t have to stand by their cane syrup very long. It has become a favorite syrup of the Wiregrass area of Alabama and, if they could make more, they could sell more.

They have compiled a Todd Syrup Recipe book that is filled with heirloom recipes that will turn a newly wed into a cook "just like grandma." "We’re glad to share the recipes and love to talk syrup making to anybody that will listen and learn," Todd said.

The Todds can be reached at 334-677-7804.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.