How sweet it is…

by Megan LaManna

video by Meg Pulling

TILARÁN, Costa Rica ­— Wendy Arguedas Murillo, machete in hand, strode toward a patch of tall grass behind Restaurante El Trapiche. She hacked down large stalks and shaved off the smaller shoots.

What looked like tall grass was actually sugar cane, usually used to make sugar. But the cane also can be used to make the traditional Costa Rican drink agua dulce, and we were about to learn how to make it first hand.

Near the patch of sugar cane sat an antique press. The press is a large metal box with holes to both feed and collect the sugar cane, metal cylinders to crush the stalks and a spout to deliver the freshly squeezed juice.

Atop the press is a long wooden beam connected to an axle. This axle connects to the metal cylinders within the press. The beam acts as the axle’s lever when pushed by ox or human, turning the metal cylinders inside the press.

Arguedas took about three six-foot-long stalks, rinsed them and turned to the press. She told us we would have to act as the oxen and turn the press. Thinking she was kidding, most hung back until Marie French stepped up to take one for the team. Others soon joined in.

As Arguedas fed each cane through one of the holes, some of us pushed the wood lever, turning the metal cylinders. The sugar cane crunched as the gears turned. Eventually, the flattened stalks rolled out lifeless through the second hole.

Each stalk was run through the press twice, once to crush the fibers and again to squeeze out all the liquid. The juice ran out of the spout, through a sieve and into a pitcher. It was now agua dulce. Within three minutes, the stalks of sugar cane had transformed from a living plant into a delicious beverage.

We drank it immediately.

It tasted sweet and herbaceous. Although it contained tiny sugar cane fibers, that was not enough to detract from its savory taste.

After the first batch was gone, Arguedas asked if we wanted more. The answer was a resounding yes.

Again, Arguedas deftly cut and shaved the sugar cane. This time she whittled off the outer layer and sliced the softer middle into bite-sized pieces. She was the first to take a sample.

Using our mouths as presses on the raw cane, we chewed the stalk. It was fibrous like a soft stick but just as sweet as the agua dulce.

Then, as quickly as the agua dulce had been made, the tour was over. The group returned to the restaurant for a relaxing lunch.

Watch the process here.

— Edited by Meg Pulling

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2 thoughts on “How sweet it is…

  1. Debbie Allen says:

    Good, detailed writing. I envisioned the process clearly, thanks to the descriptive language.

  2. BZ says:

    This segment (below) opens an entire new article for exploration way beyond the nice focused piece you did (probably another class/time). Maybe will be clearer as you move through the larger context of transformation of Costa Rican society in the last 50 years (and to greater or lesser extent the agricultural economies of Latin America): the last-year Mizzou post about unsold rice, the state of the cattle markets, bananas, coffee and now Intel, tourism, real-estate development–and forests and parataxonomists.

    When I read this, I thought of friend’s grandfather who began at age 8 cutting sugarcane in an “industrial” (as opposed to small restaurant garden) setting, to help support his family.

    How much work was it for you to be the “oxen” to create a few cups of juice?

    How does your fleeting experience potentially connect you to centuries of economic, social, political history in the Latin America, the Caribbean, and the US? What are the matter-energy conversions, like yours of cane to drink, that take place on sufficient scale to support each of our daily activities, materials? To support 7+ billion people on the planet? In short, your single sentence about deceptive simplicity, discovery, production, consumption–Where does “x” come from?– is also an entry point to some really big stories right where you are.

    Keep having fun, eyes open!

    Though the press is a seemingly simple machine, we were about to discover the manpower required for a tall glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.

    Arguedas took her pile of about three six-foot-long stalks, rinsed them and turned to the antique press. She told the group they would have to act as the oxen and turn the press. Thinking she was kidding, the group hung back until Marie French stepped up to take one for the team. Others soon joined in.

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