Friday, March 11, 2011

Sorghum Syrup and the Scots-Irish

Sorghum Syrup has been a mainstay of Scots-Irish kitchens since the mid 1800s. The article below explores this Scots-Irish treat.

In Southern Appalachia, sweetnin' refers to sugar in its various forms, including white sugar, brown sugar, honey, and sorghum syrup. For almost a century following the introduction of sugar sorghum to the United States in 1857, sweet sorghum -- popularly known in the region as "sorghum molasses" -- was the sweetnin' of choice.
Although cane sugar and molasses were widely available in Colonial times, these were store-bought items, and relatively expensive compared to current prices. Backcountry settlers had a strong preference for making their own anything and everything, and so for decades sweetnin' meant honey, maple syrup, and maple sugar. Sugar-sorghum culture was eagerly adopted and in nearly every community there was at least one farm engaged in its production.

Racine, WV -- syrup boiler on left, cane grinder or "gin" on right. Library of Congress.
Sorghum cane was harvested in late summer or early fall. The equipment for making sorghum molasses typically consisted of a mule-powered press or "gin" for squeezing juice from the cane and a boiler for reducing the juice to a molasses-like state. As the juice was simmered to reduce moisture content, in went through a series of pans or kettles. A greenish residue developed on top of the syrup and was skimmed off. At the end of the run of pans or kettles, the syrup was poured or ladled into buckets. After it was cool, it was put into crocks or Mason jars for long-term storage.

Breathitt County, Kentucky -- home-built sorghum syrup boiler. Library of Congress.

Anderson County, Tennessee. Mule-powered cane grinding operation. National Archives.
National Sweet Sorghum Producers
Georgia: Blairsville Sorghum Festival
Kentucky: Sweet Sorghum -- The Old Fashioned Way
Tennessee: Tipton-Haynes Sorghum and Scutching Festival
Virginia: Whitetop Mountain Sorghum Molasses Festival
West Virginia: Morgan County Sorghum Festival
Appalachian Stack Cake
Shoo-Fly Pie

I am an ex-urbanite who escaped the city life and has lived for the past 28 years in a rural, mountainous area of Virginia that in colonial and early-American times was part of the "Backcountry." This is the true melting pot of the U.S.A., its culture and traditions dominated by "born fighting" Scotch-Irish immigrants and enhanced by German, Highland Scot, Dutch, Welsh, and yeoman English settlers. Having absorbed and inculcated the history, values and views of the Backcountry, I would like to share insights, information, and viewpoints from the place where America began. - - Jay Henderson

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