By Nicole Taylor
The crisp equinox airs flows through my apartment as I clean bright orange and sunshine-colored carrots and slather butter around a springform pan. The toasting of pungent black walnuts and swirling of warmish syrup linger on my cloth-sack sink towels. I tend to crave a slice of all-American upside down cake when Mother’s Day is looming. With origins dating back to the early 1900s and cast iron skillets, inverting a fruit-brimming pastry is classic, like strawberry shortcake. Layered showstoppers are conventional, but overturned gooeyness with a moist crumb is ravishing.
Spending a weekend exploring Sapelo Island and Brunswick, Georgia, put fading traditions on the edge of my crown.
“Look to your left,” says farmer Jerome Dixon, while riding in a raggedy pickup truck around Sapelo’s Hog Hammock neighborhood — a lush, distinctive, two-century-old African-American community. My eyes fixate on the deep aubergine-colored stalks and crumbling top husks of unharvested, heirloom, Purple Ribbon sugarcane. As we pass by patches of sawtooth palmettos and the truck brakes slam because a beastly looking black wild cow is crossing the road, I repeat in my head, “I should’ve have spent more time with my elders in the garden.” The daydreaming continues while we loot sour oranges off the side yard of a modest, white clapboard house and drive off to the Birdhouse Cottage. Over freshly caught shrimp and green chile-infused grits, Dixon’s Gullah-Geechee drawl recounts piping hot biscuits sodden in the grassy good goop of cane syrup, and I’m hanging on to his memory, a recollection somewhat a part of my red clay-born lexicon. I remind myself of the yellow- and brown-labeled Grandma’s Molasses jars that grown-ups poured over fatback sandwiches, but at no time I partook.
Cane syrup — a bronze, honey-like nectar — is more than a larder product; the confection is steeped in communal logistics and craftsman purity. Traditionally, the men start and monitor the fire and women gather the finished goods for kitchen usage. The smashing down of the crop, pressing out the fluid, and the bubbling liquid over high heat produces semi-opaque liquid.
“It was always cane growing on Gilliard Farms. I was 13 years old, pulling cane and waiting for my taste. My grandma had a old tin pie pan with holes, made from ten-penny nails, used for skimming impurities from the first boil,” says chef Matthew Raiford, owner of Farmer and The Larder and keeper of his family’s centennial farmland, located in Brunswick, Georgia. I contacted Matthew after devouring the restaurant’s Sunday brunch special of house-made brined fish and whipped feta. I wanted to hear more beyond him witnessing the ritual of cane growing and eating.
“I’ve made cane syrup pecan ice cream,” says Chef Raiford.
Each holiday, I replenish my down-South provisions by stopping by Brooklyn’s Court Street Grocers; their shelves are stocked with Poirier’s and Alaga syrup. If I’m lucky, the person on the other end of the counter is clear about my desire. An experienced clerk aids in my baking request and doesn’t point me towards remnants of juice and crystal extraction — molasses. Getting my fingers on sticky wholesomeness is equivalent to getting a rebirth of A&A Bakery or Cookie & Co. (defunct shops located in my hometown of Athens, Georgia), I can hear my mama saying, “Your reward for doing good.”
I ponder about raising a girl child above the Mason-Dixon line and best ways to plug her taste buds into heritage. The uncertainty of the lad riding her banana seat bike under round-shaped, green, unripe nuts or seeing wise ladies stirring hot sugar is real. Running through neighborhood backyards with rows of tomatoes will take serious planning because concrete blocks are route markers. For sure, my pantry shelves and desserts will serve as a lesson. I’ll make the not-too-sweet cake minus the bright cherries, greet the houseguests and plan the perfect time to pop the pan’s latch — the debut.