Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sorghum Molasses: A Tradition Worth Preserving

Is sorghum molasses sweet and flavorsome for you, or is it a syrup that is sticky and sinister?

Although I only occasionally eat sorghum molasses, I’m sure that I would have learned how to make it if I had grown up on a farm. It was syrup that my father grew up eating regularly, and throughout adulthood he ate it as part of his daily supper -- only his was bought in a store.

Sorghum molasses is a rich, brown, sweet, thick syrup. Enjoying it with hot biscuits at breakfast is a tradition in the South. Sorghum molasses is also used on pancakes and hot cereals such as grits, and the syrup can be used as a sweetener in baking and cooking. Because most sorghum varieties are heat-tolerant, they once were very important for poor and rural people. Many Southerners grew up with sorghum as a sweetener when refined sugar was not readily available or affordable.

Impurities are skimmed off the juice
during boiling as it becomes concentrated.
Sorghum is a species of grass grown commonly as a fodder plant and for grain. Sweet sorghum – one of the varieties of sorghum that has a high sugar content -- is also grown for syrup production. Introduced into the United States from Africa, sorghum has been widely cultivated in the American South since the 1850s, although sorghum is not grown as frequently as it once was. In fact, sorghum syrup is harder to find than other syrups, and only a few family-owned farms in the South still operate sorghum cane mills.

Sign at the farm entrance
welcomes visitors.
When the Charles Martin Farm, in Jackson Springs, NC, invited the public to an “old-fashioned” demonstration, I jumped at the opportunity to see the process. First, the tall canes are cut and stripped of leaves. A worker feeds the stalks a few at a time into a roller mill, which traditionally was pulled by a horse or mule. As the stalks go through the mill, rollers extract a green juice by crushing the stalks. Next the juice is concentrated and purged of impurities by being boiled in a wood-fired evaporator pan. Even after the boiling process, the juice — now brown — still retains most of its nutrients and sugars. When it develops a thick, honey-like consistency, a metal ladle is used to transfer the syrup into a glass container. (If the syrup is still cloudy-looking, then it is not ready.)

The roller mill is typically operated
by animal power (mule or horse).
When I visited the Martin Farm, where sorghum molasses is made annually as a traditional family craft, I was one of the few spectators even though local print and broadcast media had publicized the event. Most of the spectators seem to be friends from neighboring areas who were joining again in a annual community activity. Because making syrup is very labor-intensive, its production has fallen drastically since World War II. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee now grow the most sorghum for syrup production in the South.  In middle to late October many of these states still have festivals that celebrate the sorghum harvest such as the ones in Caldwell County and Sampson County, N.C.

Stalks leaving the roller mill
have little juice remaining.
A previous generation would have told us that sorghum molasses is not only charming and flavorsome but nutritious as well. Perhaps we are missing an opportunity to come together and socialize as a community because sorghum molasses rarely has a place on our kitchen tables.

Note: An earlier version of post was published on the blog NCFOOD by the North Carolina Folklife Institute on Jan. 11, 2013. Components of the original post included in this one, which has been modified by minor edits and updates, are reprinted by permission from the North Carolina Folkife Institute.

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