Sorghum syrup, part of Missouri’s agricultural and culinary heritage

The September issue of Feast Magazine includes a feature story by Eric, which begins

What would you do without sugar?

This was a very real question for Missourians and their neighbors in the late 1850s. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Northerners became increasingly concerned with finding a source of domestic sweetener that wasn’t linked to the South, where sugar was produced and shipped up the Mississippi River. The answer was found in a new use for an old crop: sorghum syrup. You can still taste this piece of regional history today through the work of sorghum syrup producers across the Midwest, including Sandhill Farm, a certified organic producer in northeastern Missouri.

You can read the full story online in two formats, either as straight web text or the full magazine layout (with photography). This was a fun story to work on, highlighting a common ingredient in our kitchen and a farm we like and respect.

This story was born from a conversation with Stan Hildebrand of Sandhill Farm, who told us that they produced 500-800 gallons of sorghum syrup per year, and sold it as far away as Asia. On one hand, that’s a victory for international trade, but on the other, it struck us as odd that a local producer would NEED to market their product that far away. After all, our own two-person household uses a gallon of sorghum per year, and if even a fraction of Columbia residents (much less St Louis or Missouri residents) matched even a fraction of our consumption, Sandhill would sell out locally in no time. Sorghum syrup could, should, be a bigger part of the local-foods picture than it is. So we set out to learn more, and tell the story of this unique product and its Missouri roots.sandhill_fields

We visited Sandhill during the summer of 2015, talking to Stan and his colleague Mica Wood (above, in fields of young sorghum). Though it wasn’t our first visit, we enjoyed the chance to delve more deeply into the science and art of sorghum production. Below, you see the press used to extract juice from the sorghum stalks, and the firewood pile it takes to cook down the juice into finished syrup.sandhill_press

Sorghum has been on our minds for a while; on a previous trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we took photos of historic sorghum-making equipment in several locations. Below are a horse-powered sorghum mill and a cooking trough, both from the Cade’s Cove area.

sorghum_press_smokies

As part of this project, we developed a guide to using a gallon of sorghum per year, to head off the inevitable uncertainty among consumers considering a purchase. The result didn’t make it into the final print story, but we thought it was interesting enough to preserve and share here:

Our two-person household usually buys a gallon of sorghum every year and has no trouble finishing it off. Here’s a theoretical example of how easy it is to incorporate one gallon (16 cups) of sorghum into your annual culinary routine:

  • Cookies (3/4 cup per batch): Four times a year: 3 cups.
  • Served with baked winter squash (1/4 cup per meal): Four times in fall/winter: 1 cup.
  • Braise base for meat (1 cup per batch): Twice a year: 2 cups.
  • Baked beans (1 cup per batch): Once a winter month: 3 cups.
  • Oatmeal (2 T per batch): Once a week in winter:  1 1/2 cups.
  • Spread on cornbread or biscuits (1/4 cup per batch): Once a month: 3 cups.
  • Syrup for mixed drinks or citrus ade (1/2 cup per batch): Once a summer month: 1 1/2 cups.
  • Caramel popcorn (1/2 cup per batch): Twice a year: 1 cup.

Just like that, you’ve used a gallon of Missouri’s homegrown flavor, while only beginning to explore all the uses for sorghum in your kitchen.

 

If you haven’t read the piece already, we hope you check it out. Feast is chock full of interesting stories about Missouri and Midwestern food, and we appreciate their interest sorghum.

One thought on “Sorghum syrup, part of Missouri’s agricultural and culinary heritage

  1. I didn’t realize you know my good friends at Sandhill Farm!! (Sandhill and Twin Oaks are related communities) I have been there in the past to volunteer help with their sorghum harvest. Lots of fun and hot sticky work.
    Hey, you forgot to emphasize in this post just how delicious sorghum is. A really nice flavor that is an asset to dishes. Sweet and tasty. Not bitter like molasses. Wonderful on pancakes and waffles.