Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Making Sorghum Molasses

Jesse Pennington and Larry Brasfield are taking a break and posing for the camera in this sorghum cane field. Sorghum cane was first imported into the United States around 1857 from Africa and almost immediately became a popular crop for southern farmers. Before frost, the canes would be cut, the leaves stripped and the head cut from the canes to remove the seed heads. Next, horse(or mule)-powered mills would be used to squeeze the juice from the canes. The juice was then cooked down to a syrup, and any debris was removed and fed to livestock along with the crushed cane. The whole affair was often celebratory in nature, marking the transition between seasons. Sometimes neighbors would join in, especially if the sorghum mill was a portable one that moved from community to community.

Because sorghum making was typically done only once a year, there was little chance for the average farmer to become proficient at it. For that reason, there was often an experienced miller who would go around to the various communities and farms with a portable mill. Although the sorghum cane itself was fairly dependable as a crop, molasses-making was less so. Farmers had to know when the cane was ready for processing because "green" cane made "green" molasses which did not have a good flavor. And if a frost came before harvesting of the cane, then the resulting molasses could be bitter. In addition, the sorghum syrup had to be closely watched to avoid scorching. A sorghum miller that produced good results was often highly sought after.

Purists will tell you that molasses is an incorrect term for the sorghum syrup, but that is how I have always heard it referred to - either as just plain molasses, or sorghum molasses. Molasses, however, is a by-product of sugar cane not sorghum cane. The black sorghum syrup was a replacement on the Southern farm for sugar which was considered a luxury as it was expensive and often difficult to obtain. If honey was unavailable, then the farmer's family would be without a sweetener. Sorghum cane allowed farmers to be more self-sufficient.

Hat tip to Bobby Gene, son of Jesse, for providing the interesting photo!


Arvel said...

Poodlee this is a fine picture and a fine piece of writing. Great original photo from Cousin Bobbie.

Ma Jean said...

Loved the picture and article. sure wish I had a bucket of Daddy's molasses and one of Momma's biscuits. I remember feeling sorry for the mules going around and around in a circle to extract that juice.

As the syrup was skimmed while cooking, US KIDS, would be waiting to sample and eat some of the skims. There would always be hot biscuits for supper that night to sample the new sorghum molasses.

Anonymous said...

"Ma Jean", I also felt sorry for that mule and often wondered why he/she didn't fall down like a silly kid spinning 'round and 'round seeing who could spin the longest time before falling down!

As a young kid, I wondered what exactly was the difference between molasses and sorghum, but then our very knowledgable "story teller" has explained this satisfactorily. Nothing tasted better than fresh warm gingerbread slathered in butter melting and drizzling down the sides. My granny Kate (Robinson) Stone made the best gingerbread cookies that she always called tea cakes - her sugar cookies were also tea cakes! bettye