Sweet tradition: Local family sticks to old process for making syrup
‘You see this, Bo? It tastes awesome.”
Jimmy Hagood is squatting in front of a spigot fixed to the bottom of a large, shiny stainless steel box that in days past was as regal as an oyster cooker can be. Now the cooker is full of a steaming amber liquid, the crown jewel of a different endeavor this day. Hagood is drawing out the freshly made cane syrup into quart jars and tasting along the way.
It’s a picture-perfect day in early December deep in the ACE Basin. A Carolina blue sky sets off the tawny colors of late fall in the surrounding fields, woods and marsh. Spanish moss adorns tree branches along the road like tribal necklaces. The morning starts off cool and mellows into an agreeable warmth. There are no annoying mosquitos or no-see-ums buzzing about.
Colleton County’s Lavington Plantation is at its finest.
Boil and toil
“You’ve got to be really on your toes.”
So says David Maybank as he watches the choreography of three men around a massive cast-iron kettle roiling with sugar cane juice. It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, and they are in the middle of a batch of syrup. Maybank’s nephew, Jimmy Hagood of barbecue fame, and Ben Ferguson, who works for the plantation, stand beside the brick pit that was built to hold the 80-gallon kettle. In fast and rhythmic motion, they dip buckets attached to long handles into the foamy juice, and lift the pots high. Juice returns to the kettle streaming from the bottom of one bucket, punched with holes like a primitive colander.
This is temperature control, meant to cool the juice enough to keep it from boiling over as it cooks down to about eight or nine gallons of syrup. Meanwhile, their helper, Richard Harrison, moves between them as he continuously wipes down the rim of the kettle with a rag.
Underneath the kettle is a red-hot fire, visible through a small opening in front of the pit. It’s being fueled by resin-rich heart pine logs, or “fat lighter,” that are stacked behind the pit’s puffing chimney. Ferguson estimates they will go through at least half a cord this day.
The source of the juice sits a dozen or so yards away next to a handsome cabin. A trailer bears a load of freshly cut cane that was grown on the plantation. Beside it is the mill, which is being powered by a John Deere tractor.
“We’re out of mules right now,” quips Maybank, as he pushes a cane stalk between two rollers.
The cane’s liquid squeezes out and runs down a PVC pipe into a barrel. Two metal washtubs on the ground to the side are brimming with the swampy-green juice. The rigged setup looks as if it could be a moonshining operation.
It’s hard to imagine that this liquid will turn golden red, sweet and thick and finger-licking good. But it takes hours of work, about four from start to finish.
The first hour over the fire is spent constantly skimming the juice, critical to get rid of all the impurities that bubble up to the surface. “It’s got to be trash-free,” Ferguson stresses.
After some time, just when the boiling seems it might get out of control, it levels off. “That’s perfect,” says Hagood as he watches the liquid begin to transition from juice to syrup. “It’s not rising or falling,” Hagood explains. “It’s the equilibrium, right there.”
But now the men pay even closer attention. They are approaching what Hagood calls a “tight window,” the point at which the syrup is clear and has a certain viscosity — thickness and flow. They will need to yank it off the fire at the just the right moment. Hagood pours some of the syrup into an old flower vase for a look-see.
“The art in the thing is when to cease cooking,” says Maybank, “because if you keep on cooking, it will reduce to sugar.”
In the past, people judged this solely by sight. Nowadays, they can use a hydro-meter, as Maybank and Hagood do.
The hydrometer reading is 34, and everyone is surprised. The ideal number is 36. “We’re almost there, boys,” says Hagood.
“It all of a sudden slips up on you,” Ferguson chimes in.
And then, the big pouring commences.
“He is the cause of the whole thing,” Hagood says with a smile, nodding toward his 81-year-old uncle. The syrup-making has become their annual project at the plantation, which has been in the family for more than 100 years.
Maybank got interested in making the syrup about six to eight years ago, inspired by his friend, Rufus Barkley. “He called it axle grease, but he liked the process,” Maybank says.
And so, they found an old kettle in Walterboro and brought it to Lavington. Ferguson set about planting and harvesting the sugar cane, which is an arduous undertaking on its own, to say the least.
This year, he planted about 10 rows that were 150 feet long. The cane grows monstrously tall, depending on the rain, but typically reaches 8 to 10 feet high.
All the harvesting is done by hand, Ferguson says. The canes are stripped and the tops are cut out, and it takes four men with machetes working four, 10-hour days to get it done. “That’s the reason you don’t see a lot of people doing it.”
Still, why go to all this work for a relatively small amount of syrup?
“It’s sort of a Lowcountry tradition,” Maybank says. “My feeling was it died a natural death when sugar became available in the grocery stores. … But people that grew up in the farming communities developed a taste for it.”
That, “and the enjoyment that it gives people,” he adds. “It is fun, isn’t it, Ben?” Maybank asks. Everyone laughs.
Hagood relishes the time he gets to spend with his uncle and the social mingling that occurs when the whole family witnesses the affair. He also appreciates the passing-down of the tradition. “At some point, I’ll teach my son,” he says.
Much of the limited supply of syrup — five batches altogether — will be given away as gifts to kindred cane-syrup souls. Hagood also is selling some at his barbecue ‘Cue-osk in the Charleston City Market.
He is particularly pleased with this day’s batch, No. 3, as he sees it flow into Mason jars, one by one. He likes the color, its smoothness.
“I think it’s gone from axle grease to nectar of the gods.”
Reach Teresa Taylor at 937-4668.