Sorghum Syrup in the Smokies

One of the most distinctive features of American rural heritage is its culinary legacy, and the Appalachian settlers of the late 19th and early 20th century were no slack contributors. Living up in the Smoky Mountains required a certain fortitude and resourcefulness, which eventually manifested in some memorable ways, including: moonshine, NASCAR, and bluegrass music. But let us not forget gravy ‘n biscuits, cornbread, chicken and dumplings, soup beans, fried apples, and sweet sorghum molasses.

Many of those traditional foods are still cooked and enjoyed by people in Appalachia, the southern U.S., and beyond, but sorghum molasses (actually a syrup, to be more accurate) is a little more difficult to come across. It’s one of those old-fashioned foods that tend to be made and sold locally, often by a family farm. “Locally” tends to be in Kentucky and Tennessee, where the majority of sweet sorghum is grown.

Sweet sorghum became regularly cultivated in the 1800s, but for reasons including its labor-intensive manufacturing process, total production acreage has fluctuated from over 21,000 in 1899, to a low of 500 in 1972, and back up to 3,000 in 1994. The last upward trend has been propelled by high sugar prices, and, possibly, by a movement to hearken back to a culinary tradition where foods weren’t mass-produced and highly processed.

The process used by the Appalachian pioneers for manufacturing sweet sorghum molasses remains similar to the processes used today, minus the electricity-powered machines. After harvesting the sorghum cane, it’s crushed by a mill to extract its juices. The juice is collected and strained, then boiled to evaporate excess moisture, leaving a rich, thickened syrup. This is a bit simplified of course, but the overall process was rather straightforward—it had to be, since resources were limited up in the mountains.

You can see just how the American mountain settlers in the Smokies made sorghum molasses at a series of demonstrations put on by Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A knowledgable presenter, whose family has been making sorghum for several generations, will use a mule-powered sorghum mill to crush the cane, and will explain the rest of the sorghum-making process.

Pick this weekend or next to learn about one of America’s historic and endangered foods! The demonstrations are free with entry to the park, but you’ll have to buy a jar from the gift shop if you want to taste the final product.

Sorghum Molasses Making Demonstration
November 4-6 and 11-13, any time between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Learn More

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste

The University of Kentucky – College of Agriculture: Production of Sweet Sorghum for Syrup in Kentucky

The University of Kentucky – College of Agriculture: Processing Sweet Sorghum for Syrup

Photo: Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Source: NPS.gov.