There are few things more central to a people than their foods and culinary practices. In promoting and furthering Appalachian culture, the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition includes the foodways of Appalachians as something of real importance to how Appalachians have historically sustained their culture and the ways Appalachian culture has been sustained as people moved from rural Appalachia to cities like Cincinnati.
In taking time for another article in the series on Appalachian foodways, I decided to devote some attention to foods that are of special interest to me: sweets. I have what you might call terminal sweet tooth and cannot get enough (I regularly eat pie for breakfast). At the heart of any pastry or confection is, of course, sugar, and sugar in Appalachia has not historically been confined to refined sugar you buy in the grocery. A mainstay of Appalachian cuisine is sweet sorghum. You can still buy sweet sorghum syrup, or sweet sorghum molasses as it is often called, all over Southwest Ohio, and this is partially due to the influence of Appalachians in the region.
When the Stanley Brothers gave us “Pig in a Pen,” they sweetened that song of love and loss by singing about “Goin’ on the mountain to sow a little cane/ Raise a barrel of Sorghum for sweet lil’ Liza Jane.” That cane is sorghum, and the sweetness for Liza Jane is the delicious syrup made in the Appalachian regions from sweet sorghum for sugar and pastries, not to mention tokens of love.
Sweet sorghum is a serious cash crop in the United States, but this was not always the case. It is not native to our shores. Sorghum originated in Africa where it had been cultivated for thousands of years. It was the French in particular who hit upon the potential of sorghum in the mid-19th Century. Sugar from sugar cane was expensive, and a cheap alternative that could be cultivated and produced in Europe and the Americas seemed like a great way around the sugar cane industry. Sorghum became just the thing.
Sorghum is relatively easy to cultivate in the United Sates. It is a perennial and can be grown in colder climates than sugar cane. This made it a natural match for the climate and soil of the Appalachian regions. Since sorghum can be cultivated on small plots of land, about a half-acre can produce as much as 50 to 100 gallons of sorghum syrup, this made sorghum more accessible to small family farms, the kinds of farms that existed all over the Appalachian regions.
Sorghum used for making syrup is slightly different from grain sorghum. Both are grasses, but grain sorghum is cultivated specifically for the grains formed at the top of the stalk and used in animal feed. Sweet sorghum is harvested for the stalks. It is processed in the same way as sugar cane, squeezing the juice from the stalks and boiled into a concentrate like maple syrup.
Since sweet sorghum could be cultivated by small family farmers in the Appalachian regions, it naturally became a feature of the local cuisine. Historian Chris Baker points out “that mountain foodways and diversified agricultural practices were defined as aspects of primitive folkways.” This characterization of local foodways is something of a mixed blessing. By casting sorghum production as a primitive food practice, it made it easier for large-scale production to exploit the land and the farmers without drawing attention to this exploitation. In spite of the large-scale cultivators and processors, sorghum remains a feature of small farms and producers. In fact, Steve Patterson, executive secretary of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association (NSSPPA) says that it is hard to determine the number of sweet sorghum producers even to this day because so many of them are small family farms that produce sorghum primarily for their own consumption. Kentucky and Tennessee still lead the world in sweet sorghum production.
As a staple of Appalachian foodways, sweet sorghum syrup has been incorporated into the much of the culinary field. From simple sweetener to local pastries, sweet sorghum came to define what we now call Appalachian cuisine. Sorghum syrup works as an alternative to maple syrup on pancakes and was more accessible to isolated families in rural Appalachia. I, of course, view pancakes as a vehicle for the consumption of syrup, sorghum or maple, and have been known to forgo the pancake altogether. The book Mountain Country Cooking lists recipes for sorghum bars, butter, pie, and pudding. Any recipe that calls for corn syrup, molasses, or syrup can just as easily use sorghum. Since sorghum was historically far more accessible than things like corn syrup and molasses, sorghum was the go-to in Appalachian pastries and sweets.
As the Appalachian region became more connected and large numbers of people left Appalachia for cities, sorghum waned as a food staple. While the United States is still the largest producer of sweet sorghum in the world, sweet sorghum is not quite as ubiquitous in Appalachian pantries as it once was. Yet, the influence of Appalachian culture on Southwest Ohio is strong, as we know, and there are several local sweet sorghum producers in the region. Sorghum is now being developed as a source of biofuel. It requires less energy and water to produce that corn-based biofuels. From the mountain kitchen to the tank of an automobile, sorghum is a relatively unsung crop from the Appalachian region and is still a major part of domestic agriculture.
For people in our region who still hold ties to rural Appalachia, sweet sorghum may seem so obvious that it does not need to be mentioned. For others, this delicious taste of Appalachia might be entirely new. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is happy to pass on these pieces of Appalachian foodways. Something as simple as sweet sorghum is embedded in the culinary practices of Appalachia to the extent that it operates as a metaphor for all things sweet. The foodways of Appalachia persist in our region of the country because Appalachian culture as transformed areas like greater Cincinnati, and the fact that I can find sweet sorghum right down the street from me is clear evidence of this.
Cited in this article:
Baker, Chris. “Reinvneting Mountain Food Traditions and Small Farm Survival in Southern Appalachia.” Martor: d’Anthropologie du Musee du Paysan Roumain. No. 22, 2017.
Sohn, Mark. Mountain Country Cooking: A Gathering of the Best Recipes from the Smokies to the Blue Ridge. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.