This sweet and fragrant syrup is strictly a Southern product, and aficionados claim it is as delicious and wholesome as the much-revered maple syrup.
This is the season for sorghum, the sweetest taste south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s sorghum cooking time. From late September until the end of October, hundreds of Southern farmers from the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and Georgia to the Natchez Trace in Mississippi are busy harvesting the sorghum and cooking it down to syrup.
Sorghum is a grass resembling broom corn, and from this plant is extracted a sweet syrup, much like molasses. It originated in Africa and Asia, where it is still an important part of the diet. Sorghum was a popular sweetener in the United States from the mid-1800s until the turn of the 20th century, but its popularity declined because granulated sugar was more convenient.
When the cane or stalks turn brown in September, they are cut and stripped and then left lying in the fields. Taken off to the mill, the cane is crushed and the juice extracted, going into a juice box and then into a syrup pan.
The juice is then cooked at 230 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes. During this process, it is skimmed periodically. After cooking, the syrup runs into a holding tank and then into jars. These are heat-treated, sealed and labeled. The sorghum is then shipped to be sold to aficionados who swear that sorghum can hold its own with maple syrup or molasses.
True-blue Southerners maintain that a hot biscuit just isn’t complete without a tad of sorghum to perk it up. But even the most fervent fancier of sorghum has a bit of difficulty explaining the difference between it and molasses. Both cook down to thick, rich perfection, but molasses is a general term for juice extracted from sugar cane, while sorghum cane is an entirely different species of plant.
Most old-timers maintain that true sorghum can’t be made with an engine-powered mill. They prefer the horse- or mule-powered grinders that squeeze the juice out of the cane, much like an old clothes wringer works.
It takes 10 to 13 gallons of juice to make 1 gallon of syrup. And while it is cooking, it is constantly being skimmed of green chlorophyll, pectin and plant matter.
And what to do with this delectable syrup? I’m told it makes the best gingerbread ever devised and is great in pumpkin pies and cornbread, as a glaze for vegetables and sweet potatoes, or as a flavor enhancer in baked beans, granola, pecan pie and cookies.
But the best thing about sorghum season is the multitude of local festivals in towns throughout the region. Sorghum is so revered in Blairsville, Georgia, that the last three weekends in October are devoted to festivals honoring the sweet syrup. Here one can observe the whole process of syrup-making, and the natives will gladly show anyone interested in how to sop biscuits in the sorghum. On the festival grounds there are several stands offering plain and sausage biscuits for sopping, as well as apple pies, jalapeño corn dogs, boiled peanuts, cornbread and, for the less adventuresome, funnel cakes and hamburgers.
One of the most popular drinks at the festival in Blairsville is a sorghum brew. In case you can’t make it up Georgia way, here’s how to fix it at home:
½ cup sorghum
2 sticks cinnamon
1 tablespoon whole cloves
½ teaspoon whole allspice
1 cup water
2 quarts apple juice
1 lemon, sliced thin
1 orange, sliced thin
Combine sorghum, spices and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Combine apple juice and fruit slices; heat gently. Strain hot spice liquid into apple juice and serve.
At French Camp Academy in French Camp, Mississippi, Jack Johnson devotes every Saturday in October to teaching students, age 4 to 20, how to make sorghum syrup. Here’s his special recipe:
FRENCH CAMP GINGERBREAD
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sorghum or molasses
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons hot water
1 cup boiling water
Combine first five ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Stir in eggs, oil and sorghum. Dissolve soda in 2 tablespoons water; add to flour mixture. Add boiling water, stirring until mixture is smooth. Pour batter into a greased and floured 13x9x2-inch pan. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool; cut into squares and serve. Makes 15 to 18 servings.