Sorghum farmers become accidental artisans

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Syrup is being stirred over the wood fire at the Clifford, Va., sorghum festival. The syrup must be constantly stirred. / Photo by Carson Berry, used with his permission

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Danny Ray Townsend, shown examining cane in his field, is a fifth-generation sorghum farmer and syrup maker. / Photo by Melody Townsend, courtesy of Danny Ray Townsend

On a recent Saturday morning, Danny Ray Townsend stood stirring a pan of sorghum over a hot hickory wood fire.

The breeze came only now and then, wafting through the shed and carrying the syrup’s grassy scent to the crowds gathered around the mule-powered mill.

“We’ve got little spoons and we give a hot sampling right off the pan as it gets done,” says Townsend, a fifth-generation sorghum farmer and syrup maker from Jeffersonville, Ky. “A lot of them never seen it before. And the grandfathers, they used to do it, so they’re telling the kids about ‘This is the job I used to have, I used to ride the mule, I used to feed the mill.’ They’re kind of doing our job for us, keeping this alive.”

“This” is sorghum syrup, sometimes called “sorghum molasses,” a thick, sweet confection rung from spindly cane that once was a staple on tables throughout the South and the lower Midwest.

On a normal day, the 64-year-old Townsend feeds the stalks by hand through the diesel-powered mill at his farm. But at the Morgan County Sorghum Festival in West Liberty, Ky., he lets a friend’s mules — called Red and Fred — show kids and city folk how the labor-intensive food was produced just 50 or 60 short years ago. It takes about 8 gallons of cane juice to make a single gallon of syrup, Townsend says. During the three-day festival, which took place this year in late September, Townsend says Red and Fred can usually squeeze out about 75 gallons of syrup.

Women are shown skimming the boiling cane juice to make sorghum syrup at a cane mill near Carr, Orange County, N.C., in this 1939 photo. / Photo by Marion Post Wolcott from the New York Public Library

Women are shown skimming the boiling cane juice to make sorghum syrup at a cane mill near Carr, Orange County, N.C., in this 1939 photo. / Photo by Marion Post Wolcott from the New York Public Library

The 44-year-old Morgan County festival is one of the country’s oldest and largest, drawing as many as 20,000 people to the county whose population maybe hits 14,000. But throughout September and October — sorghum harvest time — festivals dot the landscape from Georgia to Oklahoma. In Clifford, Va., sorghum making takes place against the backdrop of championship jousters and stand-a-spoon it Brunswick stew. At the festival in Blairsville, Ga. (Oct. 18 and 19), the sugary syrup fuels pole climbing, log sawing, horseshoe pitching and rock throwing. At the end of the month, show horses, marching bands and a “Brothers of the Brush” beard and mustache display will celebrate sorghum at the festival in Wewoka, Okla., where you can spread the syrup on Indian fry bread.

“This is part of Appalachian food,” Townsend says. “We got to keep it alive. I had two sons and I don’t know whether they’ll continue. But it’s what I like to do.”

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Sorghum stalks that have been delivered from the field are unloaded at the Clifford, Va., sorghum festival. / Photo by Carson Berry, used with his permission

Townsend is one of the country’s few remaining sorghum farmers, a small community of growers who have become accidental artisans. Sorghum seeds came to North America with African slaves, but it wasn’t until just before the Civil War that farmers began exploring a different variety of sorghum as an alternative to expensive cane sugar. Sweet sorghum, as it’s known, took hold first in the Midwest, according to the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association, but by the 1890s had moved almost entirely to the South.

Sorghum proved a poor source of the dry sugar used for sweet tea and baking. But the syrup became an important sweetener for many small communities, and during the 1880s, the association says, they gobbled up something in the neighborhood of 24 million gallons each year. Once a staple of every Southern cupboard, sorghum fell out of favor after World War II when granulated sugar and “glucose syrups” — read corn syrup — became less expensive and easily available. By 1975, according to the sorghum association, sorghum production had dwindled to less than 2 percent of its peak.

“Everyone quit growing it because of granulated sugar,” says Townsend, who watched the farmers around him move to tobacco, soybeans and other more valuable crops.

In today’s rush for “natural” sweeteners and for anything with the vaguest whiff of regionality, however, sorghum has once again edged into the limelight. Kentucky’s Wilderness Trail Distillery uses sorghum to make rum, and American microbreweries have begun offering sorghum beer. Sorghum shows up in teriyaki sauces and Worcestershire, and on menus from Louisville, Ky., where chef Edward Lee drizzles pork with a sorghum gastrique, to Kinston, N.C., where chef Vivian Howard deploys it in her reimagined candied yams.

Sorghum syrup often is used as a sugar replacement. / Photo courtesy of Danny RAy Townsend

Sorghum syrup often is used to sweeten dishes like baked beans and pound cake. / Photo courtesy of Danny Ray Townsend

“I use it instead of molasses a lot of the time,” says baker Rachel Pennington at the Whiskey Jar restaurant in Charlottesville, Va. Pennington serves sorghum butter with her hushpuppies and a sorghum caramel with her whiskey pound cake. She sweetens baked apples with it, and it’s used in the restaurant’s baked beans. “It’s a deep, sweet flavor but not overly sweet,” she says. “I use it in the caramel to cut some of the sugar taste down. And it functions the same in the sorghum butter, it’s to bring a richness of flavor.”

All this attention has doubled production for growers like Townsend, and for Joseph Burkholder, the Mennonite farmer who makes the sorghum used at the Whiskey Jar. The sorghum producers association estimates that today there are a few hundred sorghum farmers growing anywhere from a half-acre to about 90 acres of cane and that many have doubled production.

“I don’t see it letting up for a while,” says James Baier, executive secretary of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Association, based in Cookville, Tenn. “Several of our sorghum producers have actually run out of product in the last couple years before the new season started.”

Five years ago, Burkholder set out to grow sorghum almost on a lark, he says, knowing almost nothing about it.

The sorghum syrup is strained through cheesecloth

The sorghum syrup is strained through cheesecloth at the Clifford, Va. festival. / Photo by Carson Berry, used with his permission 

“There’s always that folklore that sorghum is best when the cane is grown on poor ground,” says Burkholder, who keeps a 4.5-acre farm in Dayton, Va. “The old timers will tell you with their thumbs in their suspenders, ‘Yup, you gotta grow cane on poor ground.’ That’s how much I knew about it.”

In a way, the sorghum found him, he says. More than 20 years earlier, his sister Esther had been on the last sorghum cooking crew in the Shenandoah Valley, working the fires at Winding Creek Farm. Winding Creek closed down, Burkholder says, and the man who ran it, a fellow Mennonite, died. When Burkholder decided to start his own sorghum cooking operation, he retrieved the farm’s old machines, machines that had been in use for roughly 50 years

“I have an appreciation for how things used to be done,” says the 35-year-old Burkholder. “I have an inclination for keeping the rootstock alive, whether it’s our heritage from one aspect or another.”

Burkholder grows only a half-acre of cane. But he contracts cane from others in the valley, he says, collecting enough to produce about 1,500 gallons of syrup each year. As a Mennonite, Burkholder doesn’t drive a car, but he does use a tractor for hauling cane.

“Mennonites yes we are,” he says, “but we are tractor Mennonites.”

Even so, much of the sorghum-making process still involves handwork. Townsend’s farm replaced its mules with diesel-power a half-century ago, he says, and its wood fires with a steam boiler. But he still harvests the cane by hand, cutting it down with a corn knife, an ancient tool with a long, flat wedge of a blade. Each stalk is fed by hand into the mill.

“Even as we speak,” Townsend said during a recent telephone conversation, “I have a man putting it through. It’s cut by hand. We cut the seed heads off by hand. It’s loaded on a wagon, taken to the mill, and a man feeds it through the mill two or three at a time.”

The shed is hot, sorghum makers complain. The boiling sap stinks. And shoulders ache after a day of feeding cane through a mill. It’s an appreciation of this hard work and the tradition tied to it that sorghum makers and festival organizers say they want to keep alive.

“The old timers used to raise sorghum and they’d get together and cook it down as a community effort, four or five families,” says 81-year-old Glenn Clayton, a member of the Clifford (Va.) Ruritan Club, which sponsors the local sorghum festival. “You can’t hardly find anybody does that anymore. Every so often. But it’s a lot of work.

“We’re just trying to show the people how it’s done. How they used to do it,” he says. “You don’t want everything to die off, do you? Then you’d have nothing.”

Sorghum syrup can be purchased online. To taste Danny Ray Townsend’s sorghum, visit Bourbon Barrel Foods.

 

 

 

Makes one 9-inch pie

Sorghum Pecan Pie

Emily Hilliard, AFR contributor and serious pie baker, adapted this recipe from from the "Lee Brothers’ Southern Cookbook" by Matt and Ted Lee (W.W. Norton and Co, 2006).

Ingredients

  • Pie crust
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup pure sorghum syrup
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans

Instructions

Prepare pie crust and chill. Once chilled, roll out and fit into a greased and floured 9-inch pie pan, fluting the edges decoratively.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

In a large bowl, beat the brown sugar and eggs using a mixer or a whisk until just combined, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add butter, cornstarch and salt and mix until thoroughly combined, about 1 1/2 minutes. Pour the sorghum and pecans into the bowl and stir to incorporate (the pecans will float on the surface of the filling).

Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake on the middle rack until the center has risen and still shakes slightly, about 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature. Serve with whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Makes 4 servings

Sorghum-Glazed Turnips

This recipe was adapted from Southern Living magazine, which recommends these turnips as a great introduction to sorghum. We're thinking the sorghum makes a nice complement to the earthy, crunchy turnips.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds small turnips (about 2 inches long)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons sorghum
  • Fresh thyme sprigs (optional)

Instructions

Peel turnips, cut in half and place in a single layer in a 12-inch heavy skillet. Add water to reach halfway up turnips (about 1 1/2 cups).

Add butter, lemon juice, sugar and salt. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes.

Uncover and cook, stirring often, 8 minutes or until turnips are tender and water has evaporated. Cook, stirring often, 5 more minutes, or until turnips are golden. Stir in sorghum and 3 tablespoons water. Toss turnips to coat.

Serve immediately. Garnish with thyme sprigs, if desired.

Makes 1 9-inch pie

Sorghum-Sweetened Cushaw Pie

We'd never heard of cushaw -- let alone cushaw pie -- until we stumbled on this recipe from the delightful blog Friends Drift Inn. Author Joyce Pinson writes that green striped cushaw -- sometimes called Tennessee sweet potato squash -- is sweeter than pumpkin, and gets better with the addition of bourbon and sorghum. An Appalachian tradition, Pinson says there was a time when cushaw was preferred over pumpkin.

Ingredients

  • 1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell
  • 2 ½ cups roasted, cooked and mashed cushaw*
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • 2 large eggs beaten
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup sorghum
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice
  • 3 tablespoons orange zest
  • 1 tablespoon bourbon

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 450 F. In a large bowl, mix together all the ingredients. Pour the mixture into the unbaked pie shell. Cook for 10 minutes at 450 F. Reduce heat to 350 F, cover pie crust edges with a collar of aluminum foil and bake for another 40 minutes or until the middle jiggles slightly.

Cool and serve at room temperature.

*To roast the cushaw: Cut it up and clean out the seeds. Drizzle with olive oil and roast in a 450 degree oven until soft, about 40 minutes. Scrape the flesh from the cushaw with a fork, and puree. Freeze the remainder of the puree for another use.

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3 Responses to Sorghum farmers become accidental artisans

  1. Robin October 17, 2014 at 6:59 pm #

    I first encountered sorghum molasses at the Old Fashioned Farmers Days in Silk Hope, NC a couple of years ago. They, too, cooked it this way (as shown). It was hot work standing over that fire in September. It had an amazing flavor, though: nothing else like it!

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal October 21, 2014 at 6:22 am #

      Robin, thanks so much for your comment. Have you used sorghum since? And can you find it easily in NC?

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