For the seventh straight year, the Raising Cane Festival returns to the Pioneer Florida Museum in Dade City.
The sweet celebration, however, now comes with a spicy twist.
The one-day festival, which highlights the traditional method of milling sugarcane into syrup, will include its first-ever chili cook-off.
The event is set for Jan. 14 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 15602 Pioneer Museum Road.
The International Chili Society (ICS), an organization that sanctions nearly 200 chili cook-offs worldwide each year, will sanction the cook-off, expected to feature at least 10 professional chili competitors.
The contest was added, in part, to help boost attendance, said event coordinator Brenda Minton.
“I was always looking for something else to add to it that might bring in a different crowd — along with the ones that we had,” Minton said.
Furthermore, she said the cook-off “adds credibility” to the annual Raising Cane Festival.
“People come from all over to participate in it,” Minton said, referring to the chili cook-off competitors. They do that, she said, “because they want to get points, so that at the end of the year they can win prizes from ICS.”
The ICS cook-off includes three categories: Chili Verde, Salsa and Traditional Red Chili. Prizes will be awarded for first, second and third place in each category.
Local chili-makers, too, will get a chance to display their culinary talents.
They’ll compete in a separate cook-off, battling for the Steve Otto’s People’s Choice Award, where festivalgoers cast votes for their favorite recipes.
Meanwhile, the staples of the sugarcane festival remain.
In addition to a homemade cane syrup breakfast, attendees can partake in a syrup-tasting contest, where samples from 24 different manufacturers are judged on taste, color, pour and clarity.
Other planned activities barrel train rides and a petting zoo, as well as cane pole and iron skillet tossin’.
Also, live entertainment will be provided by the Crackerbillys, the Sara Rose Band and Those Unscrupulous Sunspots.
Yet, the event’s main course is still the old-timey cane-making demonstration, hosted by museum experts.
Wilbur Dew, who’s produced cane syrup for more than 20 years, is one of the scheduled demonstrators.
The 83-year-old said sugarcane is often cut this time of year, because “cool weather causes it to sweeten up.”
Using a technique that dates back several hundred years, the entire syrup-making process takes about six hours to complete, he said.
Sugarcane is first grinded into cane juice, using either a mule or tractor-powered mill.
“We have a mill that looks a little bit like a washing machine ringer,” Dew said. “It’s two or three steel rollers that the cane stalk is pushed through.
“The mill may be a vertical mill that’s powered by a mule walking around in a circle, or it may be a horizontal mill that’s powered by a flat-belt tractor.”
Once squeezed, cane juice is then boiled in the museum’s 80-gallon kettle.
The process usually yields 8 gallons to 9 gallons of syrup, Dew said.
To create a desired texture, Dew noted the ideal boiling temperature is around 227 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The temperature determines viscosity,” he explained. “Whereas maple syrup pours real thin, we want cane syrup to be a little thicker. Some would say: ‘We want it to stand up as tall as a biscuit on a plate.’”
And, unlike some other sugary substances, Dew said cane syrup is “an all-around good sweetener.”
“I much prefer it to maple syrup,” he said. “You can put it on pancakes, your biscuits. It’s really anything that you would use brown sugar on — some people use it in their ham preserving process.”
Museum experts say cane syrup was a routine part of pioneers’ diets, especially those settled in southern states, like Florida.
“In the Deep South, sugar was a commodity that you had to buy,” Dew said, “but you could make syrup and it would sweeten your coffee, or your tea.”
“It was just, in general, a common sweetener,” he added.
Event admission is $5 per person, with free admission for children age 5 and younger.
The Pioneer Florida Museum is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Florida’s pioneer heritage. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information on the event, visit PioneerFloridaMuseum.org., or call Brenda Minton at (352) 206-8889.
Published December 28, 2016