By Lauren Stepp
When David Burnette talks sorghum, a tall cereal grain used to make a molasses-like syrup, he talks family.
After leaving the Cataloochee Valley, Burnette’s maternal grandfather, Alden Caldwell, tended to a 100-acre farm in Murphy, where he processed some 1,000 gallons of sorghum syrup each year. And where Burnette lives today, a 30-acre plot of Haywood County farmland, his father’s family once did also.
For 25 years, Burnette has preserved the family practice of squeezing the sweet, green juice from sorghum stalks and reducing the liquid to a sticky, amber nectar that is best smeared on hot biscuits or stirred into strong coffee. Burnette even slathers sawmill blades with the stuff. “Keeps them from slipping,” he says in a velvety drawl.
Still, Southern Appalachia’s sweetest tradition may well be drying up.
Each October, Burnette welcomes the surrounding community to his farm for the annual sorghum squeeze. While the juice simmers over an open fire, families share hot dishes, hum to bluegrass and chew the fat. Cancelled this year because of COVID-19, the event typically attracts crowds 250 people deep. But the taste for sorghum syrup is waning, says Burnette.
“When we first started, folks bought half gallons. Now, they buy pints or even less,” he explains.
Withering interest, combined with the recent spread of the sugarcane aphid and introduction of sugar beets, threatens a now 220-year-old facet of agricultural heritage.
Native to Africa, sorghum made its way to the New World as a cheap food for slaves and animals. In the 1800s, sweeter sorghum varieties evolved as a means of dissolving sugar plantation profits and, in return, abolishing slavery. But for rural mountain families, sorghum became a popular sugar alternative simply because it was cheap. Subsistence farmers could grow and process the grain themselves.
“In a time when there were few available sweeteners, sorghum syrup was prized,” says Dan Pierce, a history professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville. “Fall syrup-making time was like hog killing: a time of community gathering and celebration.”
Molly Nicholie, program manager with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, adds: “Not everyone would have a cane mill or batch pan for cooking down syrup, so in addition to helping each other out and sharing equipment, [squeezing sorghum] was also a chance to come together and socialize. Kids and adults alike enjoyed scraping foam from the pan for an ephemeral treat and molasses was shared throughout the community.”
The full-day endeavor of cooking sorghum juice promises to leave attendees dog-tired: wood must be split, fires stoked and syrup monitored for color and thickness. Generally, ten gallons of juice makes one gallon of syrup.
Burnette describes the process as a “labor of love” he keeps doing because the smooth, buttery ambrosia tastes not of hard times, but of family.
“Sorghum is an acquired taste for some,” says Nicholie. “But a flavor steeped in a sense of place here in the mountains.”
To find local farms offering sorghum this fall, visit ASAPConnections.org.