In the early seventeenth century, sweet sorghum was introduced into America as an alternative to sugar cane in the upper South and Midwest. First brought here by African slaves, sorghum cane thrived in hot, arid conditions and was soon grown by farmers in the Carolinas and as far west as Texas and far north as Iowa.
Researchers believe the domestication of sorghum started in the Sudan-Chad area of Africa where it was cultivated as an important foodstuff for making breads, porridge, beverages, and sweetener. From there it spread first to India sometime around 2000 B.C. and later by trade routes to Arabia, Italy, China, and Korea. The first official record of sorghum seeds arriving in this country was in 1853, and within five years the U.S. patent office had distributed thousands of seed packets to America’s farmers.
It is estimated that in 1860, America produced almost seven million gallons of sweet sorghum syrup, with Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana accounting for about half. By 1863, Iowa alone produced three million gallons, selling for fifty to sixty cents per gallon. In some parts of the country, sorghum syrup commanded a higher price than “corn likker,” which sold for just thirty-five cents a gallon. And it was legal!
Making sorghum syrup is a labor intensive process that takes place from mid-September until the end of October. It typically involves cutting off the seedheads of the cultivar Sorghum bicolor (sweet sorghum) plant, stripping the leaves, then chopping down, and crushing the stalks in a horse powered press to obtain the juice. It was then strained through burlap into the cooking pan where it was boiled down to evaporate the water and concentrate its sweetness, much the same way as producing maple syrup. It takes about ten gallons of raw juice to make one gallon of syrup.
Following the Civil War, most production of sorghum syrup shifted from the Northern states to the South where by 1890 production had reached more than twenty-four million gallons. However, because of its short season, the amount of labor it took to produce, and the economical production of white sugar from corn and sugar beets, demand for sorghum syrup began to decline.
Today, most sorghum grown for syrup production comes from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee, where collectively only about thirty-thousand acres are planted annually and syrup production has dwindled down to around one-million gallons.
It should also be mentioned that sorghum syrup is extremely nutritious. While it contains more calories than white cane or beet sugar, it is packed with vitamins and minerals. In fact, one tablespoon of sorghum syrup contains 300 milligrams of protein, 200 milligrams of potassium, 30 milligrams of calcium, 20 milligrams of magnesium and .76 milligrams of iron. It is also high in antioxidants and supplies all of an adults daily dose of potassium.
The versatility of sorghum is being rediscovered by America’s chefs and housewives. There is hardly any dish in which sweet sorghum’s rich dark-brown “molasses” (actually molasses is a by-product of sugar cane) cannot be used to add a delicious taste and aroma. The fact is that sweet sorghum syrup can be substituted cup for cup in any recipe that calls for molasses, honey or maple syrup. It is perfect for seasoning beans, making cookies, pouring over corn bread, a stack of pancakes, or a bowl of ice cream. And let’s certainly not forget the old Southern tradition of mixing a little sweet sorghum with butter and spreading it over the morning’s hot biscuits.