Just over two years ago, Cornelia Bailey, the late beloved matriarch and guardian of Georgia’s coastal Gullah-Geechee culture, joined a team of cuisine revivalists in an attempt to bring a nearly extinct strain of Southern sugarcane back to her home on Sapelo Island. To Bailey, who died in October at 72, this Purple Ribbon sugarcane represented a living link to an agricultural history that ran from her enslaved ancestors to her own childhood, and a commercial path forward for the small, dwindling African American community of Hog Hammock, the moss-shaded village in the midst of Sapelo’s 16,500 protected acres.
Bailey had helped lead the planting of the hundred-foot-long stands in the fall of 2016 at her family’s field on Sapelo and at Dr. Bill Thomas and Jerome Dixon’s Georgia Coastal Gourmet Farms in the nearby community of Shellman Bluff. She smiled as the deep purple stalks reached an impressive height, and shed tears when flooding from last September’s Hurricane Irma nearly wiped out the project. But now, Bailey’s efforts have finally begun to pay off with the bottling of the first fifty gallons of Sapelo Purple Ribbon Sugarcane Syrup, coaxed from the juice of twenty-one rows of hand-sewn cane.
Though Bailey wasn’t there to see the late November cutting and stripping of sharp leaves from the crimson-hued nine-foot-tall stalks, her torch is being carried by her husband, Julius, sons Maurice and Stanley, and Thomas and Dixon, who helped the Baileys bring Sapelo’s first commercial crop, Sapelo Red Peas, to market in 2014. Cornelia had other supporters, too, including David Shields, the renowned food historian and professor at the University of South Carolina; Glenn Roberts, of the heirloom grain producer Anson Mills; Clemson geneticist Stephen Kresovich; the Atlanta-based chef Linton Hopkins; and chef Sean Brock, of Husk Restaurant in Charleston and Nashville, and his colleague Tyler Williams, due to assume the helm of the soon-to-open Husk Savannah.
On November 30, Williams traveled with Thomas and Dixon to Odum, Georgia’s Mickey’s Farm, where Judy Morris and her husband, Mickey, a 71-year-old master syrup maker, pressed the cane in their vintage 1926 crusher to extract the juice.
“Most cane juice is a yellow, straw color,” Williams says. “This is a deep purple. It tastes clean, not overpowering in sweetness, and it’s got this beautiful grassiness to it.”
The antique strain of cane juice then went through several filterings before being run into a line of heated evaporator pans, which precisely boil off the moisture to turn the juice into syrup. Morris must control for moisture content precisely. Too much and the bottled syrup will mold. Too little and it can crystallize in the bottle.
For now, consumers will be able to get their first taste in dishes at Husk Savannah (scheduled to open in the coming weeks) and at Hopkins’ Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch Public House in Atlanta. But the group is hopeful next year’s harvest will be two to three times as large.
Cut off stalks from this year’s crop will be planted at Thomas and Dixon’s farm and by Cornelia Bailey’s family on Sapelo Island proper. New growth will sprout from joints, or eyes, in the cane, and by next November, barring more hurricanes, a new round will be ready for the cane crusher. They hope to eventually produce enough to be able to sell the syrup directly and perhaps even one day turn the juice into a Sapelo Island Purple Ribbon rum. “At this point,” Thomas says, “our goal is getting the yield up and have it growing in more than one place, for crop security.”
For Dixon, whose family hails from Sapelo and whose grandfather once owned and worked the Shellman Bluff fields where today’s cane is being grown, there’s something deeper at work too. “Every time I walk through that cane field, I think of what my ancestors had to go through growing it,” he says. “We use modern machinery to strip the cane. But even my grandfather—he had to strip it with his bare hands. He didn’t have anything else. It made me really appreciate the work that they had to do.”
The Purple Ribbon cane (Saccharum officinarum) has also recently been included by the international Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity as a species in its Ark of Taste project, which aims to preserve foods at risk of extinction.
“I like to think Cornelia was up there somewhere, smiling and smelling that sweet steam wafting into the sky,” Thomas says. “I think she would have been very proud. She was a person who really pushed to get things back in that community. She saw the importance of projects like this. This is a legacy.”