The sweet future of sorghum

SWEETHEARTS: Doug and Barbara Harrell, pictured at Green Sage Café Westgate, grow and process sorghum on their family farm in Bakersville. They and Green Sage owner Randy Talley are promoting what Talley calls the "back-to-sorghum movement." Photo by Cindy Kunst

Sorghum syrup is becoming more and more common in Asheville restaurants for its distinct taste and health benefits, as well as its cultural significance as an Appalachian staple. But if you ask an old-timer about sorghum syrup, he might not know what you’re talking about. To those who know the product from childhood, it’s simply molasses.

Doug Harrell, 71, of Harrell Hill Farms in Bakersville goes as far as printing two labels for his jars. “Well, the old-timers — and I say old-timers meaning people my age and so forth — they know sorghum as molasses. We actually have two labels, and it’s the same product. One is sorghum syrup molasses, and one is sorghum syrup.”

Customers looking for molasses might have warm memories of mixing the thick, dark syrup with butter and using the rich topping on biscuits and cornbread. But converts to the sweetener, made from juice of the cornlike sorghum plant, have found countless ways to enjoy it. Sorghum grower Cathy Guthrie of Doubletree Farm in Marshall can’t walk into Zuma Coffee without neighbors and friends commenting on her product — one woman swears it’s the best in hot chocolate.

Its similarities to blackstrap molasses make it a handy ingredient for bakers as well. David Bauer, owner of Farm and Sparrow Bakery, uses Guthrie’s sorghum in its dark Eastern European-style rye breads. “Blackstrap molasses or barley malt syrup would be more common in Europe but the sorghum achieves the same effects but has a lot more flavor,” says Bauer. While it isn’t always the easiest replacement for sugar, says Bauer, “it has a very strong flavor, so if the flavor of the sweetener is meant to shine through a baked good, then that’s a great place to use it.”

Guthrie insists you can put it in just about anything. “Traditionally, the way it’s been used is on cornbread with butter, and that was a staple in the traditional diet in this part of the country. Cornbread and molasses go together like peanut butter and jelly,” she says. “A lot of people already know that, but for the people who are uninitiated who might not eat it every day, I usually suggest put it on toast with a little butter, or it’s really good on sweet potatoes, or if you’re making a butternut squash dish. It’s the perfect topping on oatmeal and plain yogurt. I call it the secret ingredient because really you can put it in anything. I use it in my salad dressing, barbecue sauce, baked beans, pecan pie.”

It seems that local eateries are taking note of this secret ingredient as well. King Daddy’s in West Asheville offers sorghum to pour over biscuits and waffles, but it also uses the sweetener in its sweet-potato hush puppies and glazed pears for salad, as well as cocktails at the bar. French Broad Chocolate Lounge has began to use it in a line of truffles inspired by regional flavors.

On the morning Xpress met with Harrell at Green Sage Café Westgate, he opted to pour a thinner version of his own sorghum syrup over a plate of butter-slathered pancakes and urged me to take a bite. Sure enough, Appalachia’s slightly deeper and tangier answer to maple syrup tasted right at home atop the stack of golden flapjacks.

Harrell’s beaming smile probably reflected a pride in his product, but also a pride in his heritage. Interestingly, Harrell started growing sorghum on his family farm eight years ago to “stay relevant.” But his farm, which was established in 1776, had been used to grow sorghum up until the the mid-1950s. “Until 1950, it was the predominant sweetener in the nation,” he explains. “After the war, white sugar became cheap to make, and people quit making the sorghum syrup.”

THE GRASS IS GREENER: Sorghum is actually a type of grass resembling corn. It is often used as animal fodder, but is best known as a sweet syrup. Photo courtesy of Doug Harrell
CORN COUSINS: The sorghum plant is a type of grass resembling corn. It is often used as animal fodder but is best known for its sweet syrup. Photo courtesy of Doug Harrell

Now that people are more conscious of what they are eating, says Harrell, sorghum is becoming a more sought-after product. With vitamins and minerals like thiamin, iron and calcium, Harrell says, “It is probably the healthiest sweetener in the nation today.” In the early ’50s, he adds, it was the prenatal vitamin of choice for women in the area.

And there is, of course, the more personal reason for growing sorghum. “As a young boy, I remember helping my granddad make the sorghum,” says Harrell. “It is very important to me to carry on that heritage. My wife says I’m crazy sometimes, but it’s important to keep those things alive.”

For Guthrie as well, sorghum growing is a labor of love. “This goes way back,” she says. “My interest in college was Appalachian history and culture, so that was 25 years ago. … So when things were leading me toward farming, I began looking at the more traditional methods of farming in the region, and that led me toward a lot of decisions I made.”

Sorghum is clearly not a rare crop among WNC farmers — there are currently 30 growers that name sorghum among their products in the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s farm listings. And while a fondness for the past might have inspired Harrell and Guthrie to grow sorghum, both of them have an enterprising eye for the future of the product. Harrell’s sorghum can be found in nearly 20 Ingles stores, as well as independent grocers. He has also teamed with Randy Talley, owner of Green Sage, to market what Talley calls “the back-to-sorghum movement” with videos and creative placement of sorghum syrup on the Green Sage menu.

Guthrie, while operating on a smaller scale, is also a big presence at farmers markets and independent grocers and businesses. “I think there is a lot of potential for using sorghum cane beyond making molasses out of it,” says Guthrie. “I think with Asheville’s foodie scene, there is a lot of potential for being creative. It’s an amazing product that can be used for a lot of different things. … Raw juice from the sorghum cane, I think, has a lot of potential for people who are looking for raw juice in their diet, and there is the possibility for fermenting the raw juice. So I’m really excited about that in terms of diversifying what I do.”

Check out Green Sage’s video about Doug Harrell’s sorghum production. 

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About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

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