Reviving a Crop and an African-American Culture, Stalk by Stalk

On the Georgia coast, Maurice Bailey is making sugar cane syrup as a way to preserve a tradition, and the community, of his enslaved ancestors.

SAPELO ISLAND, Ga. — Fall is cane syrup season in pockets of the Deep South, where people still gather to grind sugar cane and boil its juice into dark, sweet syrup in iron kettles big enough to bathe in.

Homemade cane syrup used to be the only sweetener that some families in rural communities could afford. Not many of those sugar shacks remain, so a jar of well-made local syrup, with its sweet, grassy notes and molasses backbeat, is as prized as the first pressing of an estate olive oil.

This autumn, no cane syrup has been more significant than the batches Maurice Bailey and his friends made from the first purple ribbon sugar cane grown here on Sapelo Island since the 1800s.

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