Preserving an Autumn Tradition
In keeping with this issue’s food theme, what caught my eye from our magazine archives was a story from October 1936. This article detailed the harvesting and processing of sorghum cane into what was nicknamed “long sweetening” — a sugary, amber-colored syrup.
Though the author of the article also often referred to it as “molasses,” sorghum syrup is not like the typical black molasses that word brings to mind, which is a byproduct of sugar refining. The color and texture of sorghum syrup are more similar to those of maple syrup. In recipes, it can be substituted for other syrups, white sugar, molasses or honey. And with high iron, calcium and potassium contents, sorghum syrup is much richer in nutrients than many sweeteners. In fact, according to the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association (NSSPPA), many doctors used to prescribe it as a daily supplement before the invention of vitamin pills.
Sorghum is a member of the grass family and is native to Africa. The history of sorghum in the U.S. goes back generations. The NSSPPA reports that a U.S. patent officer introduced it to America in 1853. By the 1860s, producers were predominantly Midwestern and hoped to reduce reliance on Southern sugar plantations and sugarcane imports. However, by the 1890s, sorghum became primarily a Southern crop.
Before foods like refined white sugar and corn syrup became cheaper, sorghum syrup was America’s most popular table sweetener. At the time the original article was written, Missouri was one of four states that produced the bulk of sorghum syrup marketed in the U.S.
Sorghum comes in many varieties, with the sweet sorghum variety having a higher sugar content than the types harvested for grain. The processing method was fairly simple but time-consuming. Stalks were cut and run through a mill to extract the juice, which was then carefully boiled over outdoor fires until it reached the right consistency.
“Horse-power, mostly, but occasionally an automobile provides power for turning the rollers of the cane-mill into which the juicy stalks are fed to extract the foamy, pale green liquid” was how the original article described the process. “Various methods of refining and clearing the cane juice of impurities are used in different sections of the country. A certain kind of clay is used by some north Missouri sorghum makers which results in a beautifully clear and golden product … Some manufacturers, however, want nothing to clarify their product but shallow skimmers are used constantly as the thin liquid boils furiously thus forcing its impurities to the surface.”
Missouri, it turns out, was the perfect place to grow sorghum. “It is declared by some experienced sorghum cane raisers that the type of soil is quite as much a factor in developing a fine flavored molasses as is the kind of cane grown,” the author wrote. “Thin clay soil, of which there is an abundance in the state, is favored largely by cane growers.”
The article reported that an acre of sorghum yielded about 60 gallons of syrup. In a good harvest year, consumers paid an average price of between 75 and 80 cents per gallon, but after a low production season, a buyer could pay up to $1.25 — the equivalent of about $22.33 in today’s money.
“And if he is a lover of long sweetening he is glad to get it at that price,” the author added.
These days it’s even more expensive. Via one internet retailer, a gallon of pure Missouri sorghum syrup sells for about $50.
Not everyone had the means to grow or process their own sorghum, so many people collaborated: “In some sections individuals who operate boiling-down plants are not sorghum cane farmers but the business is run on a share basis, through making sorghum molasses for nearby farms and taking as remuneration a share of the finished product.”
Currently, sorghum syrup is mostly produced on a small scale and sold locally. According to Local Harvest, the average producer grows 1 or 2 acres of the crop. However, it has regained some popularity as a heritage food and as an alternative to refined sugars.
Though the NSSPPA says Kentucky and Tennessee are the leading states in sorghum production today, the art of sorghum syrup-making is also alive and well in Missouri. The process has remained essentially identical to the method used for decades and is a fall tradition at several farms and historical festivals, drawing visitors from all over the country.