Sorghum isn’t easy to come by in West Virginia. But it wasn’t always like that.
The thick sweetener is derived from a cereal crop that was domesticated by Africa about 5,000 years ago and arrived in America with African slaves, according to Saveur Magazine.
The thick table syrup became the primary sweetener of southern kitchens, where it was considered an everyday staple at the end of the 19th century. During this time, sorghum production was at an all-time high — creating millions of gallons a year and much of it being used to help create rum and molasses beer in the north.
After World War II, cheap, refined sugar began to spread across the region and largely took the place of sorghum. Except in Appalachia — where its lifespan was extended in those more isolated rural areas.
Eventually, West Virginia, too, turned to the much cheaper sugar.
Today, sorghum production is far less common than using refined sugar. But, it can still be found in Kentucky and Tennessee. And, small-scale sorghum production is making a comeback in the Mountain State, too.
Family Roots Farm, based in Wellsburg (my hometown), is one of those working to revive this lost tradition with historical significance, along with Appalachian chefs looking to create dishes rooted in history and place.
In 2015, the family farm planted its first half acre of sorghum and extracted its natural juice. Typically, Family Roots Farm plants sorghum in late May or early June and harvests in late September or early October.
“Sorghum is a 100 percent natural sweetener and can be used to replace molasses, honey, or syrup in recipes. Sorghum is packed full of hard to find vitamins such as iron, potassium, and calcium,” according to the farm’s website. “Often people associate sorghum with molasses. However, molasses is a byproduct of the sugar industry whereas sorghum is the extracted juice from sorghum and boiled down.”
Sorghum and molasses have different origins: sorghum from Africa and molasses from the Caribbean. Sorghum syrup is made from the sorghum plant, which is extracted from stalks that are boiled down to leave a syrup behind, while molasses is a byproduct of processing sugar cane into sugar.
Not only is sorghum revival in Appalachia due in part to its ties to its deep tradition, but its flavor is unique.
The thick syrup has notes of dark caramel and smoky flavors. Some taste a bit of sourness or bitterness in the amber viscosity. It’s more commonly used as a syrup or an ingredient in sauces — whereas molasses tends to be used in baking.
Family Roots Farm suggests using its sorghum in baked beans, stir-fry or gingerbread, or with biscuits, pancakes and ice cream.
The Wellsburg farm is one of a growing number in the Mountain State working to carry on the tradition of sorghum production. It is a member of the National Sweet Sorghum Produce & Processors Associations, guaranteeing the farm creates a pure sorghum product.
This farm, and others, are preserving foodways that helped tie together communities — something so intrinsic to the fabric of Appalachia. Reviving this piece of food heritage in the Mountain State keeps our history alive.
We know sweet sorghum is a staple in our history — and soon it may once again be a staple in our pantries.