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Sweet Southern Sorghum

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by Cliff Lowe

Sorghum is found throughout the south, but it is found most often and most prominently in the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. And, when I was a boy, there was a farmer just about two miles down the road, who raised sorghum cane. Sorghum molasses is made from sorghum cane, and regular molasses is made from sugar cane.

Sorghum represents a double-crop to some farmers because sorghum is a cereal grass, which, at first glance, resembles corn stalks with large clusters of the sorghum grain on top.  It is believed to come originally from Africa, and today, worldwide, is the third largest food grain.

 

 

In this part of the world, it is used primarily to make livestock feed. So this farmer profited from not only selling the grain of the plant, but also the molasses he produced. He would set up his horse-powered cane press and I used to watch, fascinated, as the horse, hooked to a long pole, would patiently walk in a big circle around and around the press, while the farmer fed the raw cane through the press.

There were three openings in the press, one for cane to go in, one for it to come out, and an opening for the juice of the cane to drain out. The old horse, walking the circle, powered two closely-set crushing cylinders inside the press, and as the cane stalks were forced between and through these cylinders, the juice was squeezed out. I was always excited when we went to this man's place to buy sorghum because he had a sales stand set up by the field where he was crushing the cane and, not only did I love the sorghum we bought, and the old horse, I also looked forward to the gift of a piece of the crushed raw cane that the farmer always gave us kids. If you have never had the opportunity, as a child, to suck on a piece of cane, I weep for you. It is nature's premier candy. You can't eat it because it is too tough and stringy, but oh my, what sweetness can be chewed sucked from the stalk!

The word 'molasses' actually means 'thick, like honey' (would I lie?) and few people realize what is necessary to get the thin, sweet, cane juice to be molasses. The juice is transferred to a wood-fired, open cooker. A huge, and I mean huge, vat is placed over the fire and is filled with the extracted sorghum juice. Then, depending on the quantity of juice, it is cooked and stirred with a large wooden paddle until it thickens to just the right consistency. There is a knack to this, as the liquid will reach a point where it is very, very close to the exact thickness, but it will be too cloudy. It has to be cooked and stirred to the very point where it is a beautiful dark amber color, but not cloudy. And not burned, either. It takes about 20 gallons of juice cooked down to make 2 gallons of sorghum molasses, and it takes about 2.5 hours of cooking and stirring to make it.

Regular molasses has little flavor, other than sweetness, but sorghum has a deep, rich flavor that I would not know how to begin to describe. It is unbeatable on pancakes and biscuits and it adds a deep richness to a recipe that is amazing.

Sometimes, retailers would try to cheat the public by mixing cheaper corn syrup with sorghum and then selling it as pure sorghum. Sorghum makers started putting a green sliver of the cane leaf into each jar of molasses to signify purity. I don't think it is done today, but I can still see, in my mind's eye, that jar of dark amber liquid with the strip of green leaf in the center.

My grandmother used to cook biscuits every morning and she would always, always make a couple dozen biscuits. Then, after breakfast, the remaining biscuits were left on the table, along with a container of butter and one of sorghum molasses and a large tablecloth covered all. At any time of the day, any of us kids could run in and grab a biscuit with butter and sorghum. The way you did that was to take a small plate, put a big blob of butter on it, an equal amount of sorghum, and stir until it mixed to form a light amber spread.

If you wish to try some sorghum you can, of course, find it on the Internet for sale (what can't you find there?). But, preferably, if you can do it, take a trip south through the beautiful bluegrass and racehorse country of central Kentucky and down through the mountainous region of the southern state. I guarantee that, somewhere along the way and probably several times, you will find real sorghum for sale.

 

 

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