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  • March 15th, 2019

CRUNCHING THE SWEET GRASS

By Joel M. Vance

          Is it singular ….or are they plural? 

            Doesn’t matter—just say, “I love molasses.  They’re good.  Er, it’s good.  Never mind, just pass ‘er here!”

 

            There are few kitchens left where molasses reside(s), fewer still where the country sweetener was home processed.  The first time I saw molasses being made was more than 40 years ago.  It was a steaming day in September and an antique molasses mill shuddered and groaned as it pressed the sap out of sorghum stalks.  A haze of insects hovered over the sap vat, occasionally falling into it to drown in bliss.

 

            Yes, your grandma’s molasses likely was part insect.  Yellowjackets were especially fond of the saccharine sap and often committed insectival suicide, doing a one and a half gainer into the burbling syrup.

 

            Technically sorghum is not molasses which is made from sugar cane or sugar beets…but trying convincing the farmer who has been making “sorghum molasses” just like his daddy and grandfather did.  Sweet sorghum is an introduced grass, brought here from Africa to extend sugar production farther north than sugar cane which grows only in warm climates.

 

            But the chemistry of sweet sorghum is such that it doesn’t crystallize into sugar so the sap from the stalks becomes a viscous syrup—sorghum molasses or, as Missourians are wont to say “’lasses.”  Making molasses has many similarities to making maple syrup.  First you start with a thin sap and you boil that until it reaches syrup consistency.

 

            Traditionally you’d pour sorghum syrup over fresh, hot cornbread or scratch biscuits (“scratch” biscuits are from raw materials and the term comes from historic boxing where a scratched line denoted the starting position at the beginning of a bout).  Sorghum-drizzled biscuits on a frosty November morning, coupled with country-cured ham and eggs still warm from a hen’s bosom is a country dish hard to beat. 

 

BASIL, BELL PEPPER AND JACK CHEESE CORNBREAD

            This comes from my friend Jim Low who loves to cook in a Dutch oven, another old-timey culinary exercise. 

Ingredients:

1 cup chopped onion

½ cup chopped fresh basil (optional)

1¾ cups cornmeal

3 eggs

1¼ cups flour                                                 

1 tablespoon sugar

2 ounces diced red bell pepper                                  

1 tablespoon baking powder

1½ cups grated pepper jack cheese                            

 ½ teaspoon baking soda

1⅓ cups canned or frozen corn, drained                                

1½ teaspoon salt

½ cup unsalted butter, chilled and cubed                  

1½ cups buttermilk

1 pound bacon, fried & crumbled

 

Preparation:

            Melt one tablespoon butter and sauté onions until tender.  Set aside to cool.  In a large bowl, mix cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar.  Add seven tablespoons of butter and rub into the flour/meal mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse meal.  In a small bowl, whisk milk and eggs together.  Add to dry ingredients and stir until blended.  Fold in cheese, corn, peppers, basil, bacon and onion.  Transfer to Dutch oven.  Bake in a 12-inch Dutch oven at 400° for 45 minutes. 

            The “Three Up / Three Down = 325 Degrees” Rule: For a 10” Dutch oven, you’d have 13 coals on top and 7 underneath. Some cooks prefer “two up / two down,” or 12 on top and 8 below. A good rule of thumb for the total number of coals or briquettes is to double the number of the oven size and then use the “three up / three down” principle.

            Oven Size Number of Coals

 

10”                12 – 13 on top with  8 -7 under

12”                14 – 15 on top with  10 –   9 under

14”           16 – 17 on top with  12 – 11 under

 

 

           Two briquettes provide 25 degrees of heat; add briquettes on top or bottom to adjust heat.  To estimate the temperature of your Dutch oven, use your open palm near the oven counting “one thousand one, one thousand two, ….” (a count of: 6 – 8 seconds = 250 – 300 degrees, a “slow” oven; 4 – 6 seconds = 350 – 375 degrees, a “moderate” oven; 2 – 3 seconds = 400+ degrees, a “quick” or “sharp” oven.  For baking bread, rolls, cakes, etc., use the “two-thirds” method. That is, work with heat on top and bottom for two-thirds of the cooking time, the remainder of the time with heat only on top to finish baking.

           Preheating the oven for 10 minutes with the lid on will help prevent sticking.

 

Charcoal Placement

 

            Under the oven, space the coals evenly around the outer edge of the

oven with only one or two coals in the center.  On the lid, again, space

the coals evenly around the

outer edge with a couple of coals on each side of the handle. 

 

            Another country dish, especially during World War Two when sugar was rationed, is moonshine—white lightnin’ to George Jones fans. I don’t have a recipe for that, but once did smell a jar of white lightnin’ offered as evidence in a trial I was covering for the Montgomery, Alabama, Journal and the smell alone nearly knocked me on my butt. I don’t know if the active ingredient was sorghum or not but neither the judge nor I was inclined to find out. As a matter of fact he told the defendant, “The worst punishment I could think of would be to make you drink it.”

 

            Related to milo, a more familiar Missouri crop, sweet sorghum is one of two varieties raised in the Show-Me State: sweet and grain.  Audrain County where I used to work is the state’s top producer of grain sorghum with 1.3 million pounds in 2007, well ahead of second place New Madrid in the Bootheel.  Other producers are scattered all over the state: Livingston, Mississippi, Callaway, Boone, Jasper, Shelby, Pemiscot and Monroe.

 

            In 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Missouri ranked seventh nationally in grain sorghum production, behind No. 1 Kansas (twice as much as second place Texas), Louisiana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Oklahoma.  Those states produce virtually all the sorghum raised in the country.

 

          But those figures are for what you feed to cows, not hungry families.  Sweet sorghum is the source of syrup and also, if researchers at the University of Missouri have their way, a source of biofuel.  The drawback is the tall grass’s intolerance for cold weather.  Gene Stevens, an agronomist with the University Extension Service in Portageville, says, “It can yield as much ethanol as corn with less nitrogen and water; returns nutrients to the soil; and uses less energy in the ethanol production process.”

 

          The problem with sweet sorghum for biofuel is mechanical—equipment to harvest and process the stalks efficiently.  “The infrastructure for corn already is in place,” Stevens says.  Sweet sorghum has about four times the energy yield of an equivalent amount of corn, the current sweetheart plant of the ethanol industry.  It produces about eight units of energy for each unit used to produce it—in other words, a very energy-efficient source of fuel. 

 

          The current drawback, of course, is that there’s a whole lot more corn than there is sweet sorghum—that and the fact that corn has a much wider range than does sorghum.  Unless machinery can be invented or developed to do to sorghum what a cornpicker does to corn, the dream of a sorghum-fueled car may not pay off.  Just have to keep eating sorghum ‘lasses instead…..

 

          Today few farmers still mill and bottle their own sorghum ‘lasses, but one communal farm in northeast Missouri has thrived on it as a cash crop.  Sandhill Farm describes itself as “an egalitarian intentional community.”  It has been in existence since 1974 and is a remnant of hippie counterculture. The farm’s web site sandhillfarm.org has photos and information about the plant and syrup making process, as well as the other products raised and offered by the commune.

 

          A quart of sorghum went for $11 when it was available, making the 800-gallon/year crop worth more than $35,000.  It has been Sandhill Farms biggest single income source but currently it is\are unavailable through at least 2019.  Completely organic, Sandhill Farm sorghum avoided whatever perils lurk within processed sugar and had been widely available in Missouri supermarkets. The gathering and processing had become a social event (as traditional sorghum millings were), with friends and neighbors gathering to help out.

 

          Sorghum processing is labor-intensive.  The stalks in the field have to be beheaded and stripped of leaves.  Then they’re cut with a machete (what oldtimers call a corn knife) and left to cure in the field—the starches in the stalk convert to sugar over several days of curing. The cured stalks go through a mill or press which squeezes the juice into a vat which then is cooked down to syrup consistency, bottled and sold or used at the Farm. 

 

            Sorghum is African in origin, considered one of the top five cereal grains in the world, along with wheat,  It came to this country via slaves in the early 1600s and has been a source of country sweetener since the mid-1800s. Sweet sorghum is hardy and grows in environments hostile to other row crops especially hot and dry areas. The ability to endure harsh conditions makes it far more viable as a source of biofuel than corn— anyone who has driven by a cornfield in fierce summer weather and seen the plants spikey and burned brown by the harsh sun knows what drought can do to corn crop.  Sweet sorghum also needs less water than corn and less fertilizer.

 

          Sweet sorghum and grain sorghum are two different crops. Grain sorghum, far more common, is grown on an estimated 100 million acres worldwide.  Many confuse molasses from sweet sorghum with the molasses made from sugar cane an entirely different sweet syrup.  Sugar cane goes through three boilings to arrive at what is known as blackstrap molasses which is considered a health food. And while it may be good for you, blackstrap molasses is a far cry from the more agreeable flavor of sweet sorghum molasses.

 

            At its peak early in the last century the country produced 20 million gallons of sorghum syrup annually, but now the figure is a million gallons, most in southern states—Missouri is not among the eight leaders, although Iowa is.  Texas and Florida are warm enough that farmers can raise two crops a year and sweet sorghum is such an agreeable crop that the first crop actually seeds the second, a self renewal almost unique in today’s intensive agriculture.

 

          Having said all this about sorghum lasses, I have to confess that I don’t much like it (them) and when it comes time to decorate a biscuit, whether made from scratch or from a can that you bang on the edge of a counter until it explodes, I use honey. Honey has medicinal uses also. I recall from my croupy days as a sickly little kid my mother mixing honey with a little bourbon whiskey as a throat soother.

 

         It may have been a folk remedy, not endorsed by the American Medical Association, but I no longer suffer from croup.

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Paul F. Vang

    March 15th, 2019 at 6:49 pm

    Reply

    One year in the late 1940s/early 1950s, my dad raised a field of sorghum on our southern Minnesota farm. Improbably, there was some old guy back in the hills who was equipped to crush the sorghum stalks and to cook it down to molasses. We had sorghum molasses for years, and I still have an appreciation for it.



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