Updated: Sep 6, 2019
For generations, sorghum sweetened the South. This crop is classified as a grass, and looks a lot like corn--with a tall stalk, broad leaves, and a prominent seedhead. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, fields of sorghum dotted rural Southern communities. Sorghum is much more resilient to harsher winters than sugar cane is, and the entire plant can be processed and used in a number of applications. Sorghum leaves are stripped and used as feed for livestock. The seed-head is removed and milled into flour for baking. The cane is crushed to make sorghum syrup, an earthy sweetener that graced Southern tables for generations. As refined sugar became more prevalent on grocery store shelves, sorghum all but disappeared from Southern pantries. At Green Door Gourmet, we are seeking to change that.
Sorghum was first imported from Africa to the southern United States in the mid-1850s, and initially was grown in the United States as an experimental crop. However, sorghum became a staple crop in Northern Confederacy states during the Civil War, when imports of sugar cane from Florida and Louisiana became sporadic. During this period sorghum became a symbol of Southern resourcefulness and sovereignty. It was a crop that could be grown within the borders of states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and it was a source of pride to eliminate reliance on imported sugar.
During the Reconstruction period, sorghum gained popularity for its usefulness and ready availability. Sorghum syrup was ubiquitous on Southern tables and in Southern pantries. Fields of sorghum were prevalent in agrarian Southern landscapes, with the crop being milled, processed and pressed for use in a number of applications--from bread to beer.
In its heyday, sorghum harvesting season was a festive time where communities rallied together. The sorghum harvest generally takes place in mid-to late-fall, when the weather begins to cool. Harvesting and processing is hard work, and required significant manpower in the era before modern machinery. Sylvia describes the communal activity of sorghum processing, “It’s not a party how we were thinking of a party. It was work. It was about helping your neighbor.” The rural lifestyle was necessarily communal. Not every landowner grew sorghum. Not every farmer had a sorghum press. No proprietor had the staff or manpower to process the sorghum quickly and efficiently on their own. Sorghum harvesting and processing required a community, and it was a time for members of the town to come together and catch up after a busy summer season.
While the sorghum syrup was bubbling over a fire, community members would take turns stirring the pot, which can take 5-8 hours to thicken, depending on the humidity and implements used. During this time, a big dinner was brought out. Baked goods, vegetables, and sides would load the table, and the farmer usually provided the protein--generally fried chicken for all. Conversation and food were shared, and townspeople would take turns stirring the slowly thickening sorghum syrup.
From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, white crystalized sugar was preferred and used by wealthier bakers. However, sorghum syrup remained the sweetener of choice for many Southern households, and could be found in the pantry as a table sweetener in even upper-class households. David S. Shields, in his book Southern Provisions, says, “For half a century, from 1870 to 1920, the sorghum jug sat next to the biscuit basket on many southern and midwestern tables.” p 272. This changed in the mid-1900s, however, when white refined sugar became readily available and affordable to most Americans. Sylvia describes, “White refined sugar was a symbol of wealth and power. As people started being able to afford white sugar, even though it wasn’t as tasty, they would purchase it because it was a symbol of affluence.” The crop that once powered the South had lost its popularity in the age of refined and processed foods.
Today, sorghum syrup is difficult to find, and only a handful of producers make it. At Green Door Gourmet, we chose to plant this crop for a number of reasons. Our 15-acre crop of sorghum is revitalizing a field that previously had been used for vegetable and flower production. It is a hardy crop that is resistant to weeds, and the extensive root system will help to break up soil compaction, allowing the soil to build a healthier and more aerated structure. Planting a sorghum crop in 2019 aligns with our mission to be good land stewards, and to foster a holistic approach to agriculture.
We are also growing sorghum for slightly more sentimental reasons. As a family-owned working farm, it is important for us to preserve an important piece of agricultural heritage in this region. Sorghum harvesting and processing is a time for us to connect with the community, and for the community to connect with the land where their food is grown. It is a time to slow down and to come together. We probably won’t ask for your help in harvesting (thankfully a much easier process now that we have tractors and harvesters), but we invite you to take part in this agricultural and culinary tradition that is rooted in our Southern heritage.