Sorghum syrup once flowed like creek water in the Southern Appalachians, and there are signs that this ultimate “slow food” may be flowing again. With help from the state, several local farmers have revved up production of the rich, old-fashioned syrup (sometimes called sorghum molasses).
“Sorghum growing was handed down from Joseph’s family and from mine—from our grandfathers and from theirs before that,” says Catt Redcloud. She and husband Joseph have made and sold herbal salves for years, relying on old family recipes and growing herbs and flowers on their Qualla Boundary farm near Cherokee. A grant from the Western North Carolina Agricultural Options Program is enabling them to expand their syrup operation; they also plan to open their farm to agritourism.
“We work almost exclusively with native plants,” says Catt. “And we show people that sometimes using the old ways is at least as good, if not a better, way of doing things.” When making sorghum syrup, for instance, the Redclouds use a horse, harnessed to a renovated mill that’s been in Joseph’s family for many generations.
In Madison County, Cathy and Andy Bennett take a similar approach. Although they’ve been turning sweet sorghum into syrup for 10 years, their AgOptions grant lets them take it a step further, the couple says. “There are a lot of people around here whose family history includes growing sorghum and making molasses from it,” says Cathy Bennett. “We really appreciate and enjoy the ties to the land that it brings—and being part of that community.” The couple is putting the final touches on a commercial kitchen that will increase their output; they’ll also make the facility available to other sorghum-syrup producers.
It’s a slow process, traditionally done with shared equipment and labor. The Bennetts planted their sorghum in mid-May. This fall, their neighbors helped them strip the leaves from the 10- to 12-foot-tall sorghum plants, cut them down and chop off the seed heads. The gathered canes were hand-fed, a few at a time, into a horse-powered mill that crushes the canes, extracting a yellow-green juice that smells a bit like fresh-cut grass.
It takes about four hours to cook down the juice, yielding “a gallon of syrup for every 10 gallons of juice,” Weaverville resident Worth Emory reports. For more than three decades, he’s been making sorghum syrup with his brother Eric and appearing at the Mountain State Fair each year to demonstrate the process.
Having learned from mountain natives like the Emorys, Bennett is proud to rely on old-timer methods for judging the end product: “It’s said to be ‘tater-hilling’ when it gets hot foam bubbles the size of potatoes,” she explains. “You see smaller ‘sheep’s-eye’ or ‘frog’s-eye’ bubbles right before the molasses is ready to come off the stove.”
It’s darker than honey but not as bitter as its cousin, blackstrap molasses (a byproduct of making crystallized cane sugar). Sorghum syrup, says Bennett, “tastes something like caramel.” Traditionalists use it as a baking sweetener or pour it straight from the jar onto hot biscuits. “We put it on anything you’d use honey on,” she explains. “I make caramel corn with it, and we really like it on vanilla ice cream.”
Sorghum syrup is also rich in iron, calcium, potassium and phosphorus, according to Carla Pawling, who sells the product at her Forge Mountain Company Store in Flat Rock.
Madison County extension agent David Kendall hopes the Bennetts’ community kitchen will help reinvigorate this old custom. Though other varieties of the plant are still grown widely as cattle feed in the Plains states, sweet sorghum remains mostly a Southern thing, particularly in the Appalachians: Unlike the subtropical sugar cane, sweet sorghum is drought-tolerant and better adapted to moderate climates; once a valuable cash crop in the region, a mere acre of sweet sorghum can produce about 200 gallons of syrup.
But these days, some less-sweet sorghum varieties are attracting a new type of interest: A four-day “International Conference on Sorghum for Biofuel” was held in Houston in August. And a recent piece on MSNBC.com reported that “ethanol made from the [sorghum] stalk’s juice has four times the energy yield of … corn-based ethanol.”
But back to taste: Locavores with a palate for tradition can support the syrup’s boutique-food status. “I can see sorghum molasses becoming popular in specialty-food markets [and] with chefs who want to use local products,” says Kendall.
Worth Emory will leave that kind of marketing to the younger generation. “We sell it right here from our farm,” he notes. “We’ve been doing it so long, we don’t have to advertise.”
Asheville resident Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.