By Natasha Anderson
You know it’s fall when the Guenther family arrives at Great Smoky Mountains National Park with mule, cane mill and wood-fired boiler in tow. Over the next ten hours they will process a day’s worth of sorghum cane into sweet, syrupy sorghum, an authentic molasses-like treat and cooking ingredient traditionally served on hot biscuits and pancakes and in porridges and grits.
“People come to Cades Cove and imagine what life was like in the community here,” says Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) videographer and publications associate Valerie Polk. “The sorghum demonstrations are one way that visitors can witness that way of life.”
For years, the family has demonstrated their chosen art form at the old cane mill near Cades Cove Visitor Center. Never failing to attract a crowd of onlookers, the Guenthers then sell their product on-site in the park and at GSMA-operated visitor center stores, as well as at various fairs, theme parks and festivals across the region. While the sorghum is cooking, the Guenthers chat with people drawn to their setup and offer a taste of the finished product. They find that most people absolutely love it, and some even set up chairs nearby and picnic while watching the process unfold.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Muddy Pond Sorghum has lost much of its business as festivals, fairs and other crowd-attracting events are canceled or closed due to social distancing measures. Without that dependable source of income, the Guenthers are worried for the future of this piece of Southern history.
“This year’s been really rough for us,” says Sherry Guenther, daughter-in-law of late Muddy Pond Sorghum founders John and Emma Guenther. “One after another, all the events got canceled, and without the shows, we don’t sell much. Of course, when we do sho
w, we can’t give out any samples, which is what often sells our product.” Sorghum molasses is available in quart- and pint-size jars for $12.99 and $9.99, respectively, and Aunt Becky’s Barbecue Sauce, made from sorghum and spiced with a hint of chipotle pepper, is also available for $9.99 in park visitor center stores and at the official park online store, smokiesinformation.org.
Aside from its more traditional uses, like as a spread on hot biscuits, sorghum can be used as a catch-all sweet condiment for topping, dipping, stirring or cooking into any number of dishes. It’s considered by many to be a perfect addition to pecan pie, baked beans and even coffee. Mixed with soy sauce, it’s a great marinade for steaks.
“Sorghum is very versatile,” says Polk. “If stirred into recipes, it will add a deep earthy sweetness.”
For additional recipes and online shopping, or to learn more about Muddy Pond Sorghum and the Guenther family, visit MuddyPondSorghum.com. Proceeds from all merchandise purchased at official park stores, operated by GSMA, help fund important park projects like trail maintenance, environmental education and historic demonstrations.