Southern Sugarcane Revival
Sugarcane on Sapelo Island was once tended by slaves. Now it might sustain their descendants and help keep Geechee culture alive.
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Cornelia Bailey remembers the day, a quarter century ago, when the residents of Sapelo Island ground sugarcane for the last time. The whoosh and whack of machetes cutting cane. Juice dribbling from severed stalks. Sweetness in the December air.
“All my relatives were gathered around,” says Bailey, a majestic 70-year-old and the unofficial matriarch of this Atlantic island, which lies just off the coast of Georgia. Traditionally, the islanders yoked a horse or mule to a large wooden pole fitted into a car-engine-sized iron grinder that was mounted on a wooden truss. As the animal trotted around the grinder, the pole moved the machine’s rollers. Cane was fed into the device and crushed by the rollers, with juice trickling into a kettle below. But the last horse on the island had died long before it came time to grind this final crop. “We improvised using a pickup truck,” says Bailey. “It went round and round and round for hours. And that was the last year we sold cane syrup. It cost $2 a quart.”
Sapelo Island is a 15-minute ferry ride from the coastal town of Meridian. The islanders don’t sell syrup anymore, but that may soon change. If Bailey and a dedicated band of plant geneticists, food revivalists, and farmers have their way, cane will grow on Sapelo Island again. It will be a variety of purple ribbon, the storied cane tended by the island’s early settlers. Purple ribbon was later shipped from Georgia to Louisiana and became the major crop cane there until disease and the American Civil War interfered. Now, 13 close cousins of Sapelo Island’s original purple ribbon cane will be tended both on the island and at a nearby coastal farm. From those 13, a few of the hardiest and sweetest cultivars will be crossbred. The quest: to emerge with a newly anointed purple ribbon for today, one hybridized for ideal flavor, sweetness, and hardiness.
If this sounds like yet another romantic story about the revival of a heritage plant, it’s actually far more. When plants die, the tastes they evoke die, too. Cuisines that arise out of local ingredients are inextricably interwoven into local customs and rituals and a sense of identity—their flavors become a shared sensory language. Losing an heirloom cultivar is, ultimately, a profound cultural loss. More pressing is the fact that the fate of Hog Hammock, the small African-American community on the island, may depend on purple ribbon. Hog Hammock is home to a dwindling and historic culture of West Africans called Geechees, descended from the hundreds of slaves brought over primarily from Sierra Leone in the 1800s. Today, only a few dozen remain on the island and, though they have fought off developers and rising taxes, they must find a way to revitalize their community or watch it die.
In the 1800s, when the first West African slaves arrived at Sapelo Island, they must have been struck by its wild beauty. Sapelo is set into the East Coast’s largest stretch of pristine salt marsh. The marshy grasses undulate for 160 kilometers, provide precious habitats to many creatures, and keep the waters as clean as those of remote Alaska. The island is a gorgeous magnet for ecotourists—a semi-tropical wonderland bowered with maritime forests, ancient oaks, wild oranges, and silvery nets of Spanish moss. The state of Georgia owns 97 percent of the island, and its Department of Natural Resources regularly conducts marine research projects there.
Sapelo’s Geechees live within the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which stretches over 33,000 square kilometers, from Pender County, North Carolina, to St. Johns County, Florida. This national heritage area is intended to raise awareness and help preserve the cultures of both the Geechees in Georgia and Florida—who may be named for Georgia’s Ogechee River—and the black Americans inhabiting the Sea Islands and coastal regions of the Carolinas who call themselves Gullah. The name Gullah may be derived from the Gola (Gula) tribal group in Liberia or from the Ngola, a tribal group in Angola. There are roughly 200,000 Gullah-Geechee people alive today, but most are assimilated into contemporary American culture.
Sapelo’s Geechees represent one of the most intact and unspoiled African-based cultures in America, maintaining many aspects of their original language, culture, and spirituality—from basket-weaving to their “Sea Island Creole” dialect—as well as a distinctive “low-country” cuisine that is a centerpiece of southern foodways. There is no supermarket on Sapelo, no post office, liquor store, public transportation, or cell phone service. The grammar school shut down in 1978, and the few children still living on the island take a ferry to the mainland for school each day. Only crumbling ruins remain from the 1809 sugar mill.
In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Gullah-Geechee’s coastal region on its list of most threatened places. “Unless something is done to halt the destruction,” the trust said, “our nation’s unique cultural mosaic will lose one of its richest and most colorful pieces.”
“We call it the other Georgia,” says Bailey, sitting at her living room table in the modest ranch house where she lives with her husband, Julius “Frank” Bailey. “There’s a Georgia on the flats and a Georgia on the ocean.” Bailey is known as “the Sage of Sapelo,” the sturdy oak around which others gather. She’s also the author of a memoir of island life: God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia. In 1993, she started the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS), a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and revitalizing Hog Hammock.
“If you ask me what I love here, I love the Sun, the Moon, the uninterrupted view of the sky, the fish, the smell of the marsh, the alligators’ eyes, the wild honeysuckle, the pine scent, even the damn gnats when they’re biting. I go over to the mainland on the ferry as little as possible.” She pauses to answer the phone; it is an inquiry about reservations for the guest house she runs. Her nine-year-old grandson Marcus darts into the kitchen to open the pickle jar and ask when he will be getting that pretty horse he has been promised. (His horse, the third on the island since the last sugarcane harvest, will be a pet—there are no plans to conscript it into the new sugar business.)
In the half-light of evening, as the soft marshes take on a reddish hue and the Spanish moss darkens, one can picture how it was long ago: the nets they wove to catch their daily fish, the baskets made of sweet grass, the peace of each morning’s “declean” (dayclean, or dawn). Bailey is the descendant of an African Muslim slave named Bul-Allah (or Bilali). He worked as the head manager for wealthy agriculturist Thomas Spalding, who established a sugarcane mill on the island and soon after ran one of the biggest sugarcane productions in the region—relying at times on more than 350 slaves.
“Half the residents still living here are my family and close relatives,” Bailey resumes. “We’re the ones keeping the community going. So how do we bring some money in and support the families and have a schoolhouse again?”
Restoring a nearly extinct sugarcane is a collaborative effort, one that brings together scientists, historians, farmers, and chefs. Stephen Kresovich, a specialist in sorghum, maize, and sugarcane genetics at Clemson University, vividly recalls the day his colleague David Shields called him to ask if he could help find and re-establish purple ribbon cane. Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina, is a food revivalist and historian and author of Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine. In the spring of 2014, he had been invited to Sapelo by SICARS to help brainstorm a way to bring fresh income to the island and save Hog Hammock.
Shields also chairs the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, whose mission is to restore the South’s heirloom grains, legumes, fruits, and seeds, including rice, corn, peaches, peanuts, chestnuts, and peas. Shields knew that in the 1820s, Sapelo’s sugar mill was the most productive sugar-production facility in the United States. He came up with the idea of restoring purple ribbon cane as a new mission of the foundation.
“For months after that meeting, I made a fruitless search for the original purple ribbon,” recalls Shields. “So I called Steve. I thought we might be able to resurrect the close cousins of today to re-create purple ribbon.”
For Shields, repatriating sugarcane is part of a far larger mission to bring back extinct cultivars and revivify classic southern cuisine. He provides the historical research while chefs, scientists, and farmers provide the collaborative effort. “I feel those plant extinctions took a whole world with them,” he explains. “To re-create that world we need everything from plant genetics to classic ways of planting and harvesting to knowing the recipes of long ago.”
Low-country cuisine, invented in part by Gullahs and Geechees, is influenced by both African and European foodways. Rice is its staple grain and corn its subsidiary grain. Two other pillars are sugar and citrus, including the wild sour oranges that grow on Sapelo Island. All of these elements blend into a synthesis that makes this cuisine distinctive. Shields believes we are still missing flavors of Gullah-Geechee cuisine because we have lost the original cultivars. Today’s granulated sugar is mostly made from beets. It is generic and one-note. It can’t have the nuances of an heirloom plant. His interest in sugar is personal as well; he spent the first five years of his life in Japan during the Second World War, and there was no sugar available at all. “When I came to the USA as a child and sat down with a bowl of Kellogg’s frosted cornflakes, I nearly went into shock.”
“David has a visionary view of purple ribbon that echoes but goes beyond the storied past,” says Kresovich. “And I’m at a point in my career where I want to impact the welfare of society. And the Sapelo cane project is a perfect opportunity. It’s a blend of research, genetics, and direct outreach with a community.”
Together, they canvassed every cane collection they could find, sourcing cuttings of any living cane named purple or ribbon from collections and farms across South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida. They also canvassed museums, herbaria, and collections across the entire United States and beyond. “We don’t have a vouchered, labeled, proven specimen named the purple ribbon,” Kresovich explains. They originally chose 25 varieties, profiled the DNA of each, and reduced the number to 13 types. The same purple ribbon that grew on Sapelo Island two centuries ago may be among them, but there’s no validated reference from a museum to prove it, says Kresovich. “All the varieties are genetically unique. They’re quite different than the cultured sugarcanes available now, so it suggests they do belong to historical variants that went out of production.”
Small cane plants were first raised from germinated buds in a greenhouse on the campus of Clemson University. In the spring of 2015, Kresovich and a team of students brought the tiny plants to Georgia Coastal Gourmet Farms, an enterprise in Townsend, Georgia, just 20 minutes from the Sapelo Island ferry. The farm is operated by Atlanta neuropathologist Bill Thomas, a board member of SICARS and himself a descendant of South Carolina Geechees, and by local farmer Jerome Dixon, whose family has owned 34 hectares of coastal farmland for over 100 years. Together, the team planted all 13 of the selected varieties of sugarcane in four separate rows.
Thomas, who goes by the affectionate nickname of “Doc Bill,” says he always wanted a two-system approach for re-establishment of the cane—both on the coast and on the island—to ensure the success of the project and stabilize it. He fell in love with the island in 2000, on his honeymoon with his wife, Annita, and the couple has since built three luxury rental cottages there to help encourage tourism. Those cottages would come in handy to house Clemson students and staff, as well as members of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, when they later assisted with the project.
Dixon tended the cane all spring and summer, and by late October, the robust and pest-free three-meter-tall rows of cane were ready to be harvested to replant for the next crop.
To replant sugarcane, workers cut the severed stalks, lay them sideways in shallow furrows, and then cover them with soil to protect them from the cold. The “eyes” of the stalks at the joints will put out tufts of spidery roots, and when spring arrives, cane stalks will sprout from each eye on their own. In November, the team also ferried cane over to Sapelo Island, where it was banked in an old two-step tradition that Bailey remembers from her childhood. The workers dug deeper trenches and essentially buried the cane in leaves and straw in the earth, where it now lies mostly dormant and protected. This spring, it will need to be dug out and replanted.
Growing the cane in two places, and in two ways, helps ensure the success of the endeavor. Kresovich says the first crop was surprisingly healthy and pest-free. Dixon agrees: “The quality is just phenomenal. I’ve never seen cane this sweet before.”
Science is a foundation for restoring the cane for today’s needs. Kresovich will collect data on the crops in the coming years and will monitor the sweetest, tallest, hardiest varieties. There is already a high-end market patiently awaiting the heirloom cane. Atlanta superstar chef Linton Hopkins and award-winning distiller Scott Blackwell, of Charleston’s High Wire Distilling, are planning to purchase cane for their businesses. Recently, High Wire produced a rum agricole—a cane juice rum originally distilled in the French Caribbean islands from freshly squeezed sugarcane juice rather than molasses. Blackwell sold all 233 bottles of the first batch. What might rum from purple ribbon taste like? “Fresh juice has a green banana and grassy flavor that when fermented will make a really interesting final spirit,” says Blackwell.
Says Kresovich, “A Chardonnay from California is not like a Chardonnay from New York. There are volatiles and organic compounds in these canes and I need to identify and breed for them, specifically for these customers based on their preferences. We may be able to establish a nice little niche business to keep Hog Hammock alive.”
If Steve Kresovich is the keeper of cane science, Cornelia Bailey is the keeper of its spirit and traditions. She remembers sneaking into the purple ribbon sugarcane patch with her brother and carefully cutting one stalk down with a pocketknife and then covering it with dirt so her parents wouldn’t catch her. “We’d go someplace secret and peel and chew it. It was so delicious and sweet. My mama used to make a mean taffy out of cane syrup and a fluffy cane syrup cornbread. She made jams and marmalade. The sour oranges on the island are so tart you don’t need to add lemon juice to the marmalade. The men who worked in the field used to make sugarcane tea to help them from cramping in the summer heat. They would ferment the juice and drink it by the fire at night.”
Will the purple ribbon cane repatriation project save Hog Hammock? Or is it a wistful dream? If you ask Bailey, she resorts to storytelling. “They tell me I died as a child and when I suddenly came back to life all the elders said I had come back for a reason. They believed I could see and hear and know things the ordinary person can’t.” She hints that the legend may be true; she seems to know things before they happen. “My husband and I moved to St. Simons Island for a while in the 1960s, and then we came back here. And people said, ‘You’re back for a reason. God sent you back.’” That expectation, she acknowledges, is a burden, but it’s woven into who she is.
“I’ve been talking to residents about lending me their yards to plant cane. I’m envisioning sugarcane growing, the leaves blowing in the breeze. I want to smell it. I want to see it. I want to sharpen a machete and watch the young people cut it down as if they were slaying a dragon. We’ll take long stalks and peel them and cut them into strips and sit in the shade chewing them. There’s nothing more delicious in the world. We’ll bottle our own syrup. We’ll sell the cane to rum distilleries.”
Two hundred years ago, Sapelo Island’s mill churned out enough sugar that the average family could stock their cupboards with it. The bright notes of the purple ribbon cane soon became a signature of southern kitchens. But the American Civil War in the 1860s left Thomas Spalding’s descendants broke. They shuttered the mill, and the cane crops shrank to backyard patches. Nobody knows what led to its final disappearance from Sapelo Island, but like many heirloom cultivars today, it is poised to rise again. If it does, it will not only sweeten the economic security of Hog Hammock—that missing ingredient will help sustain Geechee culture.