A few weeks ago, I asked my 94-year-old dad if he had a favorite drink–thinking he might say something like a Manhattan or a Whiskey Sour. He looked skyward for what seemed like a long time, and then he finally announced, “probably cane juice.”
Huh? Cane juice? I guess I’m still learning things about my dad—and learning things from my dad, too. This lesson was about a great memory from his childhood in Savannah, Georgia, which was apparently overflowing with a sugary natural drink that I’d never even heard of.
Cane juice is made by crushing sugarcane stalks, and it is quite popular across the South, as well as throughout Latin America and in Southeast Asia. People have been enjoying this stuff for generations wherever sugarcane is grown (who knew?). Oh, and cane juice can also be aged to make rum (patience is an even greater virtue than I thought).
Whenever my dad had money in his pocket as a kid, he would stop for cane juice at roadside stands in and around Savannah. He also shared that there were a lot of stands in nearby Guyton, where his Aunt Beth lived on what we’d nowadays probably call a farm (she kept chickens and pigs out back). In the old days, the juice was sometimes made by mules that walked in a circle to power a cane crusher.
Fresh cane juice had to either be consumed or refrigerated right away, which wasn’t a hard choice for a thirsty kid (and there wasn’t much refrigeration in those days, anyway).
With my dad’s re-kindled interest in cane juice, my sister found a place close to where he lives in Florida that serves it in much the same way as the stands across Savannah in the 1930s. The community of Bokeelia, on Pine Island, is only about 40 minutes from my folks’ home in Fort Myers, but it feels lost in time. Pine Island still has general stores, motels that advertise in-room color TV, endless fruit groves–and a place called Fruitscapes that sells amazing fruit as well as fresh-pressed cane juice.
We stopped into Fruitscapes for a visit this week, and were delighted to find fresh juice—along with pomelos, bananas, persimmons, dried mangos, and a super friendly staff. During our visit, our new friend Cecelia gave us a little education along with a glass of the prized juice. Just as in the old days, she threaded several stalks of sugarcane through a press, and then folded the partially flattened canes in half and did it again. The whole press contraption looked like it was made in 1930, so maybe that’s why the juice tasted so familiar to my dad.
So, for four dollars, we got a demonstration, a drink, and a chance to hear stories about Savannah in the 1930s. I’m not sure I’d say that I like cane juice better than a Manhattan. But you probably have to drink six Manhattans to take a trip through time, and it only takes one cup of cane juice.