Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Asheville Keeps Alive Sweet Sorghum Syrup Tradition

Sweet sorghum syrup from Double Tree Farm can be used on flapjacks or in cornbread.
Sweet sorghum syrup from Double Tree Farm can be used on flapjacks or in cornbread. / Rachel Brownlee / Special to the Citizen-Times

Where to buy sorghum

Call Cathy Bennett at 380-2254. She can arrange a drop off in Asheville at one of the weekly tailgate markets. Quantities are limited.
Of the few southern states known for producing sorghum, North Carolina is still standing strong.
Here in Western Nprth Carolina, the tradition of making sorghum syrup is being kept alive by a handful of old-timers and homesteaders with access to antique cane mills and plenty of helping hands. Much like the culture of maple sugaring, making sweet sorghum syrup (or sorghum molasses) is a time-consuming, communal affair.
Popular for its agricultural durability in tropical and subtropical regions, Sorghum bicolor (of the sugar cane family) is grown worldwide for its use as grain, silage, ethanol and syrup production. Its multipurpose characteristics have made sorghum a favored choice in rural and low-income regions with its drought tolerance and nutritional stability, acquiring deep roots in Appalachian history.
Due to its labor-intensive nature, sorghum syrup production declined greatly after World War II when able-bodied farm hands became scarce. Currently, only one million gallons are produced within the U.S. annually, compared to more than 20 million during the turn of the century.
Alongside a few local producers (including Flying Cloud Farm in Fairview) Cathy Bennett, owner of Double Tree Farm in Marshall, produces and mills sweet sorghum as part of an annual tradition, using draft horses to power her mill.
She said the decision to make sorghum syrup is an extension of her choice to farm with draft horses. “When people see that you farm with horses in the country, they want to talk to you about old traditions,” she said. “I was curious about their recollections of making molasses, so in 1998, when I was living and farming in Greeneville, Tenn., I decided to grow some.”
Following a move to Madison County a couple of years later, Bennett continued to make molasses with volunteer help and borrowed equipment. Later, Double Tree Farm erected their own facility. “It was helpful, too, that people were interested in buying it. We cannot make enough,” she said.
The sorghum stalks are prepared by stripping their leaves before being cut down and relocated to the milling site where the seed heads are then removed. Prior to harvest, the mill must be set up and firewood collected.
“There are lots of details that go into getting ready to make syrup,” said Bennett. Lining up help and making an order for jars is just part of the process. Once the sorghum stalks are pressed by the mill to release their sweet, green-tinted juices (it takes about 10 gallons of juice to produce one gallon of syrup), the juice is simmered over a wood-fueled fire in a large, shallow vat, requiring constant tending and skimming until it cooks down into a rich, dark syrup. Often this is a ritual requiring a full day or weekend entirely devoted to the event.
At Double Tree, sorghum seeds are sown in May or early June and often in succession to stagger the harvest. Draft horses are used to cultivate the plantings. Harvest and syrup making takes place in September and October, when the weather turns crisp. “The cooking day can be lots of fun if people come over to help,” Bennett said. “Usually friends come and play music and the children can ride the horse that is powering the cane mill. There is a festive feeling when we are cooking molasses.”
When asked how she most enjoys the final product, Bennett has a long list. Aside from keeping a jar of it on the table to use on the fly, she tops everything from cornbread to oatmeal with the sweet syrup. Highlights include sorghum syrup as a replacement for Karo in homemade caramels and pecan pie, and as the special coating for salty-sweet popcorn. Bennett even uses it when brining meats. “Really, I put it on everything,” she said. “It’s the secret ingredient. Some people claim it’s a superfood — whatever that is — but I believe it.”
Sorghum is special not only for its many culinary uses, but because it represents a time passed, one fully dependent on community. It speaks to the satisfaction of old-fashioned hard work, and to the sweet rewards of keeping tradition.


1 cup quality corn meal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon aluminum-free baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sorghum syrup
1 egg
5 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 400. Heat a 100-inch cast iron skillet in oven with the butter.
Mix dry ingredients together in a medium miking bowl. Whisk together the buttermilk, sorghum and egg in a separate bowl. Remove skillet from oven and add melted butter to wet ingredients once slightly cooled. Mix buttermilk mixture into dry mixture. Gently blend with a rubber spatula. Pour batter into hot skillet and bake until golden, about 20 minutes. Slice and serve with additional butter and sorghum molasses.

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