Nov/Dec 2018A Sweet Gift from our Ancestors Text by Michael M. DeWitt Jr., Photos by Joey Frazier
A few South Carolina families continue to grind and cook sugarcane to make syrup, using the trades and traditions passed down to them, and the savory recipes too!
History has a strong pulse in South Carolina’s storied Lowcountry, especially along the Salkehatchie River near Rivers Bridge State Historical Site. It was here, 153 years ago, that twelve hundred Confederate soldiers fought against more than 5,000 of Sherman’s Federal troops in battle, delaying their progress on to Columbia. Another history has deep roots here, too. Just a skip up the road from the old battle grounds, on the first Saturday of each December, William Carroll Hiers and his brother Alvin (a retired SCDNR game warden) gather their families at Three Mile Creek Farm to cook sugarcane syrup. It’s their way of carrying on a sweet family tradition to honor their ancestors, and it is a great excuse for a family reunion of sorts.
“When I was a child, we did this every year at my grandmother’s,” William said. “What we do here is what we’ve done for generations. I think we have instilled this in our children, and I know that when I am gone I’ll look down and see them still cooking syrup.”
The Spanish moss that drapes the ancient oaks here has savored the smoke from hundreds of cane syrup cooking fires. The well-worn cast iron kettles, dipping gourds and other antique implements are older than anyone present. There is a creaking wooden building on the property that was once a one-room schoolhouse, and two of the guests enjoying the food and fellowship on this fine Saturday once attended school in that building, not a hundred steps from the cooking kiln.
Through the ages, cooking up cane syrup has become a family event. Children run and play while the men and women work the boiling syrup. The process takes several hours, so there is plenty of time for banter and socializing. Steam fills the air to mix with stories and laughter into a magical mist that family memories are made of. They can cook four batches of syrup in a day, but around noon everyone, no matter how busy, stops for lunch — it is a spread you would not want to miss. Families gather, carrying covered dishes. Some folks stroll in from just down the road, and others drive in from as far away as Spartanburg.
The event draws nearly one hundred people each year, and this year there was a whole hog slow-roasting on the barbecue grill and two turkeys sizzling in oil nearby. Malinda Brown, a cousin from Hampton County, sent a cake made with cane syrup. Sample one slice, and you are hooked and begging shamelessly for the recipe, which she will happily share. Mack Leonard and other cousins come from Spartanburg each December to lend a helping hand.
“It’s a family get-together we look forward to every year,” Leonard said. “It’s a neat process, and it’s good to see the kids get involved. It’s something you don’t see very often, and I don’t know that a lot of people still do this anymore.”
William Hiers organizes a cane syrup gathering one weekend a year and refuses to sell a drop, insisting instead on gifting it to friends and family.
“We do this just two days a year, and I don’t want it to go any longer,” he laughed. “It’s a lot of work.”
There were three generations of the Hiers family present.
“I would feel like something was missing if we didn’t do this,” said Calin Hiers, William’s son. “My granddaddy didn’t want this part of his life to go away, and my daddy started doing this to teach us. It’s a part of us now. My kids look forward to this like it’s Christmas, and getting to spend two days with my family is wonderful.”
William’s daughter, Kara Carrigg, brings her family from Aiken each year for this event. “We never, ever miss the cane grinding,” she said. “It’s a good experience with family members we don’t get to see often. It’s still a connection to my grandparents. It keeps their memory with us by doing this every year.”
A Labor of Love
The Hiers brothers plant a mixture of Yellow Gal and Blue Ribbon cane. The day before the cooking, the cane is cut with machetes or hoes, loaded onto trailers, and covered to protect it from frost. Come morning, after a hearty breakfast of hot cakes, syrup and coffee, the day-long process begins. The cane mill is set into motion using a small tractor (the old-timers used a mule) that pulls a pole, powering the pressing mill as it circles. The cane stalks are fed a few at a time through the twin rolling drums that squeeze and extract the muddy-brown juice into a drum. The raw cane juice is then filtered — first through burlap, then through a pillowcase — to make it ready for cooking. This is the physically demanding part; after that, it’s time for centuries-old knowledge and skill to come into play.
The juice, filled with flavor but still loaded with impurities, is then poured into a sixty-gallon cast iron kettle. The furnace, built of railroad iron, mortar and pea grout, was once powered by fat lighter wood, but is now lit by gas for better control. Once the furnace is fired and the juice begins cooking, the water steams upward and evaporates, impurities rise to the top to be skimmed off with dippers, and the cane juice slowly cooks down and thickens into sweet syrup. To enhance the filtering process, a metal ring is placed around the vat, and the juice is allowed to boil over to be filtered through cloth before returning to the pot. A favorite treat for the kids is to take a piece of sugarcane stalk, dip it into the edge of the cooked-down, syrupy froth, and chew the “cane candy.”
The cooking process generally takes about four to five hours. How can you tell when the syrup is ready? This is where the skill of the ages comes in, because “it’s only a matter of minutes between syrup and candy,” say the skilled veterans of the trade. Too thin, and the syrup won’t keep. Too thick, and it turns to sugar. William and Alvin personally see to this task, standing side by side with dipping gourds, anxiously peering through the steam. The Hiers boys use a drip test. They pour the syrup from the dipper, and when it stops dripping like a liquid and starts flaking immediately, it’s ready. Other indicators would be the way the syrup boils and jumps, or listening to how it sounds when it drips into the bottom of a washtub.
“It’s not a talent, it’s a learned thing, and no matter how many times you do it, you can still get it wrong,” said William.
A trailer load of cane stalks might fill a kettle with juice, and that sixty-gallon vat will yield eight to ten gallons of syrup. Once it’s perfectly cooked, the hot syrup is then filtered one final time, through cheesecloth, then poured into glass bottles to cool before being transferred to plastic for storage and sharing.
Equally large portions of labor and love go into those bottles. This is how our ancestors did it, during the days of early America, during the Great Depression when families had to be self-sufficient and nothing was wasted, and during World War II rationing days when sugar was scarce. Today, it’s easier for most people to put food in front of their families, but folks like the Hiers clan believe that we should never abandon the lessons, legacies and traditions passed down to us. If hard times come again, the Hiers family will be prepared.
While our children and grandchildren may move and settle all over this modern world, time-honored events, like making cane syrup, connect us to our humble roots, to family, home and place. These roots don’t just tickle the taste buds, they can touch the heart. That is what cooking cane syrup is all about: handing down sweet family traditions to the ones we love.