The secret ingredient in the foundation of Manatee County's Whitfield Estates? Turns out it was sugar cane syrup.
The syrup, made by crushing sugar cane and then boiling down the juice that is squeezed out, was the signature product of the Alabama-Georgia Syrup Company, founded in 1906 by Louis Broughton Whitfield in Montgomery, Alabama. Whitfield came from Georgia; his wife, from Alabama. To honor their interstate union, Whitfield named his company's syrup Alaga.
Now little-used, cane syrup was a staple of Southern tables for decades, and Alaga was particularly popular among African-Americans, according to research done by Norm Luppino, a board member with the Whitfield Ballentine Manor Association. Whitfield's company partnered with black baseball stars like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, and entertainers like Nat King Cole, to sell bottles.
(There's an ugly paradox here. I live in Whitfield Estates, and the abstract of title my wife and I inherited when we bought our home includes a document from 1927 that stipulated that the land could never be "given, loaned, rented, leased, encumbered or conveyed to any person of negro blood.")
The syrup manufacturer, now known as Whitfield Foods, Inc., is still kicking, having added other syrup products, and even a syrup-sweetened Alaga hot sauce, to its profile.
So where does Manatee County come in? A Whitfield Estates historical marker, unveiled to the public last Saturday and sponsored by the local neighborhood association, explains the connection. In 1924, Whitfield "assembled 682 acre of land that included the 218 acre bayfront estate of the late Alfred Ringling," according to the sign. Plans for the town of Whitfield Estates included a hotel, golf course, business district, yacht club and even man-made islands in the bay. The first unit went on sale in 1925 and a year later the neighborhood incorporated as a town, complete with its own mayor. But the boom turned into a bust almost immediately and the developer went bankrupt in 1927.
Whitfield's impact is still in evidence around the neighborhood. The name has stayed the same, of course, and there's even a Broughton Street, too, right near where the new marker now stands.
We're a Cholula family, but, given its connection to our neighborhood, I was willing to give Alaga hot sauce a try. The flavor is close to Tabasco, but with an even more aggressive heat pop. The texture is thick and clingy, just how I like it. Alaga syrup is nice, too—a swirl of sweet and vegetal that goes great on pancakes or waffles. The Whitfield neighborhood association and the new historical marker have both deepened my understanding of local history and expanded my palate. Can't beat that.