IN THE REMOTE WILDERNESS OF CUMBERLAND ISLAND, OFF THE COAST OF GEORGIA, AN EXTENDED FAMILY CONVENES FOR A FORAGED FEAST
“We’re havin’ fun now,” says David Sayre with a mischievous grin as he steers his pick-up truck deep into the wild forest of Cumberland Island, Georgia. Saw palmetto branches scrape across the windshield like nails on a chalkboard. We bounce along on what was once a road, but the island has reclaimed it. A maze of vines hangs from towering longleaf pines. We’re on a mission for firewood—cedar and oak—to stoke the many fires on our cooking agenda. Cousins from far and wide, descendants of Lucy Carnegie (sister-in-law of famous industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie) who once owned 90 percent of this island, are convening for a few days of feasting and eating off the land. I’m a lucky guest, along for the ride.
David, a former charter pilot, seems to know where he’s going. Unruffled, he ignores our protests, adjusting his straw hat adorned with an alligator bone, what he calls a “scute.” The truck dips sharply into a dry creek bed and heaves up the opposite bank. We let out a collective sigh of relief.
“What’s a scute?” I ask his daughter Hannah, trying to distract myself from the feeling we are about to be swallowed up by the primeval forest.
“It’s the ridge that runs along the back of the alligator and acts as solar panels. It enables alligators to retain enough body heat, keeping them warm during underwater dives.” she replies without hesitation. Hannah and her mother Gogo Ferguson are in the business of knowing their bones. From a very young age, Gogo, the great-great-granddaughter of Lucy Carnegie, has been foraging this seventeen-mile-long island for natural objects that she then transforms into exquisite gold and silver jewelry. Before Gogo met and married David, she was a single mom who had inherited little more from her father than a bottle collection and an impressive set of sharks’ teeth. Her jewelry business and vivacious personality have since turned her into a household name for the style-minded. An exhibit of her work is currently on display at the High Museum in Atlanta through midsummer.
Cumberland Islands National Park
When we finally grind to a halt, the women in our group jump out. “We’re walking,” exclaims Lucy Flight, Gogo’s cousin. We let the men chop the fallen trees into firewood as we set out to explore. Lily the dog leads the way. We navigate soil uprooted by wild pigs. We dodge horse droppings from the island’s healthy feral horse population. We circle around sunken Native American “middens”— cooking depressions surrounded by discarded oyster shells. At the edge of the marsh, the rising ground morphs into a cliff of oyster shells piled high from centuries of feasting. Clearly we’re not the first to enjoy an oyster roast on this island.
“This land used to be cotton fields,” says Scout, Lucy’s daughter. “Now it looks like Jurassic Park.” Ever since 1972, when Cumberland Island was declared a national park, bits of family land have reverted to the Park Service. More Carnegie homes will eventually revert, as will the Candler properties (the Coca-Cola family) at the northern end of the island. But thanks to the steel will of Gogo’s grandmother, Lucy R. Ferguson, one chunk of land will always remain “in the family” because her descendants own it outright in the form of a trust. There, facing west on the marsh, sits the Greyfield Inn, a stately Colonial-style home built in 1900. The inn is run by Gogo’s brother Mitty and his bride, Mary Josephine.
Firewood piled high, we climb back into the truck and head down the island’s dirt road to Greyfield to plan our island harvest for tonight’s meal. We find Mary Jo stirring up a batch of hot cocoa on the century-old stove in the inn’s bustling kitchen. Woven picnic baskets with red-and-white checkered linens are lined up for guests to take on their daily excursions. Plastic buckets brim with oysters and clams harvested yesterday from the northern end of the island. I hear that cousin “T.C.” (Theodore Carl Haffenreffer IV) has bagged two wild turkeys. Mitty has been playfully scaring staffers with a turkey foot. His grandmother Lucy, for whom this house was built, kept a turkey foot as a paper weight.
The inn’s naturalist, Barbara, overhears our discussions about foraging for wild mushrooms, then shakes her head and pipes up, “I know better than to touch wild mushrooms.” Mitty concurs. “Our old gardener picked some wild mushrooms once and everyone who ate them got sick as hell.” I recently heard about a professional forager who made a misjudgment that cost him his liver. There’s a word for what I’m feeling: mycophagophobia—fear of eating wild mushrooms. It’s a healthy fear.
Shane Devereux, a towering guest chef from Atlanta, pulls up a chair and gives us his two cents. He suggests we gather up some fiddler crabs for him to flash-fry whole as crunchy appetizers. Meanwhile T.C.’s turkeys are soaking in vinegar, macerated berries, and a basic brine to mellow the pungent wild meat. Outside, I hear the panicked gobbles of wild turkeys chased by Lily in the back yard. Gogo gets a text message from another cousin, Nate Foster, who has had success casting his net at the jetty: whiting and redfish. Our meal is quickly coming together. We just need to supplement this bevy of proteins. Ideas start flying. Mary Jo reminds us that there is rocket weed (wild arugula) growing in the primary dune. Hannah knows a freshwater stream where we can find watercress and dollar weed. Pink grapefruit is ripe for picking at Gogo’s cottage next door to the Greyfield.
Passing Wild Horses
“What about acorns?” says Hannah’s husband, Ben Thomas. “You can boil the nuts and grind them into flour, then bake bread. It’s like a dense, dark, walnutty cornbread.”
“My brother Jamie makes a great acorn beer,” says Gogo. But none of us are feeling that ambitious today. Instead, we stroll over to the Greyfield’s garden, where gardener Ryan Graycheck gives us a tour of his sugar cane, figs, lemongrass, lettuce, winter greens, and plentiful citrus trees. We’ll throw some of his peppery watermelon radish and black radishes into our salad. We set off to dig up some cattails, the wetland reeds whose crunchy stalk can be diced up into our rice dish. On our way to the marsh, we pass some wild horses who seem mildly wary of us but hold their ground. They have the run of the entire island, its forests and beaches.
“That’s Balius,” says Ben, “son of Xanthus. His dad is a big Appaloosa stallion roaming around here somewhere.”
“What do they eat?” I ask.
“They love Spanish moss,” replies Gogo. That’s a good thing, considering there is Spanish moss literally dripping from every tree limb in sight. When the sun illuminates it from behind, you feel you are in a forest of lace. We pass beneath a live oak so ancient its outstretching limbs dip in and out of the soil for support, the evergreen canopy large enough to shade a city block.
In Search of Fiddler Crabs
Once again we are dodging scrubby palmetto fronds as we descend to the marsh to reach the cattails. Gogo’s boots squish in the pluff mud. She nearly loses her balance. “Not today, Go,” chides Hannah. “It’s way too chilly to fall in.” With a kitchen knife and a lot of digging and tugging, we manage to uproot a hefty batch of stalks that we cart back to the inn. Then it’s back to the truck, heading south to the mud flats in search of fiddler crabs. This time, another set of cousins has climbed on board the truck bed: Sarah Butler Stettinius and her two young children.
The kids sing songs as we pass by the spooky ruins of Dungeness, the original Carnegie mansion which mysteriously burned to the ground in 1959. The family believes it was arson—revenge by a local hunter angry with Lucy Ferguson’s anti-poaching crackdowns. Gogo remembers her grandmother loading the children into her jeep in their pajamas to go on nighttime poaching raids. I marvel at the adventurous life this family has led.
We hop out at the flats and ready our buckets for the tiny crabs that litter the marsh by millions. But with today’s wind chill and heavy cloud cover, there is not a fiddler crab in sight. The crabs stubbornly burrow beneath the surface, refusing to come out until the sun shines and the temperature hits a cozy 75 degrees. In that respect, they are like many Southerners. We empathize and let them be. Driving back toward Greyfield, Ben lets out a sudden “Stop!”
“Mushrooms!” Sure enough, a thick yellow mushroom grows in tight shelves about five feet up the trunk of a large oak tree. But can we trust it? “It’s a chicken of the woods,” says Ben matterof- factly. “Laetiporus sulphureus, also known as the sulphur shelf.” I’m still not sold. “Actually,” he proceeds, “there are six types of Laetiporus species. Some grow high up the trunk, others on the butt or the roots. Different types grow on different trees, so you always have to be 100 percent confident on your i.d. before harvesting.” He certainly seems to know his mushrooms. I look quizzically at Hannah, who laughs, “Meet our resident mycologist. Ben gets up at six or seven in the morning and collects mushrooms. He studies the books, collects spores, and even sends them to professors for analysis.” His expertise is totally unexpected, especially considering that Ben is a classically trained musician by trade. He just returned from a three-month tour with Ben Taylor, son of James Taylor and Carly Simon. Hannah missed him, and they can’t stop stealing kisses behind trees. “Why is it called chicken of the woods?” I ask Ben. “Because it tastes like chicken.”
Robbing The Cradle
Hannah carefully slices off the shelves with a pocket knife so it will regrow, and we head back to the Greyfield Inn for the evening’s meal. Dave and Mitty shovel oysters and clams onto grates for roasting. The cedar logs hiss, crackle, and pop dramatically. We bask in the fire’s warmth. Batches of hot oysters and clams are dumped onto a long table, still sizzling in their own juices. Guests of the inn join us. A boy visiting from Mill Valley, California, finds a tiny crab in his oyster. Mitty intercedes. “That’s a delicacy. Eat it. They’re sweet. It was a favorite of the Tsarina.” I wonder momentarily if “Tsarina” is a nickname for one of the famed Lucys of Carnegie yore, but no, he is speaking of the ill-fated Russian empress who paid top dollar for these rare little critters. The boy pops the crab into his mouth and smiles.
“Someone’s been robbing the cradle,” scolds Gogo, frowning at the smaller clams that should have been thrown back. Scout’s boyfriend, John Hartz, looks up from shucking. “That wasn’t aimed at you, John,” laughs Gogo. John whispers defensively, “Scout and I are only three years apart!”
Leaving behind a battlefield of empty shells, we move to an outside table for our foraged feast. An old sugar cane cauldron nearby serves as a pit for a blazing bonfire. The moon peeks through the canopy of oaks. As we tear into our spoils, the conversation turns to the island.
“Do you remember,” says Dave to Gogo, “when we were coming down the beach, and our friend Al asked, ‘Do gators ever come on the beach?’ And I said, ‘No, I’ve never seen ’em on the beach.’ And five minutes later, this good-sized gator, about eight feet long, comes over the dunes and walks right down into the water.”
This Island Belongs To Everyone
Everyone laughs, and the alligator stories start flying. Then the shark stories. Then the wild pig stories. I’m getting a unique glimpse at a family whose members have grown up exploring, hunting, and harvesting this island and its waters for generations. I can picture Scout as a baby swinging on the vines beneath the white sand cliffs up by the clam flats. I see Nate dragging the seine net against the outgoing tide and catching sheepshead and black drum for his father, Whit, to fry up for the family. I see T.C. at age thirteen in his close encounter with an angry wild sow in the marsh. I picture Hannah as a child being schooled with cousin Hadley in a one-room schoolhouse on the island, with a deer and baby pig as companions. I see family dinners on the beach, waves lapping at the diners’ feet, and tennis matches played on the sand between high tides.
I understand why JFK Jr. chose to get married here, in the humble little First African Baptist Church further up the island. It’s a place to escape and to treasure— an island teeming with wildlife, anonymity, layered history, freedom, and tradition all at once. It has given this family a sense of place now for seven generations. And in turn, they have helped protect it. It very nearly became the next Cape Canaveral and narrowly escaped being developed into a patchwork quilt of subdivisions by Charles Fraser, the Hilton Head developer. The Carnegie descendants, and their friends the Candlers to the north, were instrumental in securing the island as a national park.
This island belongs to everyone now. And to no one. I definitely sense that we’re all just passing through, enjoying its riches.
Gogo looks across the table at T.C., Nate, Scout, John, Hannah, and Ben. “There’s the next generation,” she says. “I just want you to know that we can all live very happily and healthily on Cumberland Island.” T.C. pipes in, “Let’s do this again next year.” The next morning, I catch the ferry back to the mainland, feeling wistful as the big island slowly pulls away from me but taking solace in the knowledge that Cumberland Island will always be there, waiting for me to return.