Wander the country roads of Southern Indiana and you’ll sometimes see signs advertising freshly made sorghum, the sight of a pony pulling a rope round and round in a circle attached to a machine or an odd piece of farm machinery that looks like a long forgotten antique laying out in a field. These are the remains of a once thriving agricultural endeavor but now an almost forgotten foodway – sorghum making.
The popularity of sorghum, first introduced in America in the 1600s by captured Africans and brought to this country, surged in the U.S. during the 1850s and by 1888, some 20,000,000 gallons were being produced. A major crop in Indiana, according to an encyclopedia article from 1896,the state lead the way in sorghum production, Sometimes referred to as molasses, sorghum comes from crushing long stalks of cane and then cooking it down to produce a thick rich syrup used for baking and pouring over biscuits and pancakes.
Laborious to make, sorghum lost its allure when sweeteners like honey and sugar were easy to buy at the store. But in Southern Indiana, with its rich country style food traditions (think pork tenderloins, sugar cream pies, maple syrup and persimmon pudding), sorghum is still celebrated and in the autumn, as the fields turn a golden yellow, is the time when old sorghum mills start spinning, turning the cane into juice which, like maple syrup, is cooked into syrup. One such celebration is the annual the Sorghum Festival in Crawford County, a rural landscape of rolling hills, hidden limestone caves and deep woods edge by a ribbon of the Ohio River, held on the 3rd Saturday of October.
During the festival visitors can stop by the Bye Family Sorghum Mill on Knights Road and watch Charlie Bye, his wife Tina and some of his siblings continue their family tradition that stretches back to the 1800s, of making sorghum from the cut cane, stacked on its sides to keep from getting bitter before being fed into a mill extracting the juice and then simmer outdoors in a wide flat container before being bottled into syrup.
Bye is the fourth generation sorghum maker in his family.
“I’ve been helping make sorghum ever since I could walk,” he says noting that he is now 52. “My great grandfather used to make it. Back in the 1930s when my father made it, there were a lot of other sorghum farmers in Southern Indiana. Now we’re one of the few.”
He also remembers his father traveling with horse and wagon to deliver sorghum and the syrup’s popularity. There was a little town in Kentucky, not far away, just a wide spot in the road, where his father delivered some 300 pounds of sorghum each year. Bye also remembers packing it into tin pails and covering it with tin lids but then the company manufacturing those items went out of business so he switched to jars. The demand was so high, that Bye’s father often crushed other farmers’ canes, keeping some of the sorghum as payment. Now, no one else nearby even grows the cane.
“We would get so busy when I was young that my dad would have to stack the cane because it doesn’t like the cold so you have to harvest it before the frost,” says Bye. “We would make sorghum starting in September and keep going until December.”
It’s no longer that way but despite these changes or maybe because of them, Bye continues to make sorghum to carry on the family tradition.
“When my dad became ill in 1983 he wanted me to make it,” says Bye. “And so I did. I love making sorghum and my wife and my brothers and sisters come and help.”
A collector of antique sorghum mills, Bye thinks about how it was made in his great grandfather’s day with a mule or horse pulling the mill wheel around in circles to crush the juice. Now, he uses an old car motor to get the mill working.
“It’s our family heritage,” he says. “It is something I have to keep doing.”
Growing up with 19 other siblings, Bye remembers his mother making biscuits three times a day on her wood burning stove and serving them with the family sorghum on top. Indeed, his mother, who had five sets of twins, often cooked with sorghum and the siblings put together the Bye Family Recipe Book, a collection of their mother’s recipes.
For more about the Sorghum Festival, held this year on Saturday, October 20th at the Crawford County High School, 1130 South State Road 66, Marengo, IN, call 812-739-4254.
Charlie Bye sells sorghum from his house on E. Knight Road in Milltown while his supplies last. Anyone interested should give him a call at (812) 739-4573.
The following recipes are from the Bye Family Recipe Book that sells for $15.00 and is available at the festival or through the Byes.
The Best Ever Sorghum Cookies
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup shortening melted
1/2 cup sorghum
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream sugar and melted shortening. Add egg and sorghum beat well. Add flour, and soda; mix well. Add vanilla.
Drop on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake at 375 about 12 minutes.
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter
1.2 cups light cream
3/4 cup sorghum
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1teaspoon salted almonds
Mix first five ingredients in saucepan. Stir to dissolve sugar. Cook over medium heat until syrup when dropped in very cold water to form a firm ball (or hard ball stage on thermometer) Remove from heat and add vanilla. Pour into a battered cookie pan. Cool until candy can be handled. Cut in squares, place almond in center of square. Roll into balls keeping almond in center. Wrap in wax paper.
Sorghum Pop Corn Balls
1 3/4 cup sorghum
2 cups sugar
2/3 cup water
2 teaspoons vinegar
½ teaspoon baking soda
3 1/2 quarts salted popcorn
Combine sorghum, sugar, water, and vinegar and cook to hard ball stage (250° degree).
Remove from heat and add soda. Stir to mix well and pour over popcorn, mixing it well. Shape into balls. Makes 12 popcorn balls.
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup sorghum
1 teaspoon soda
2 cups roasted peanuts
Melt butter in a sauce pan. Add sugar and sorghum. Mix well. Cook over medium heat stirring frequently until syrup when dipped in cold water becomes brittle. Add peanuts. Pour into 2 large greased cookie pans. Lift edges and stretch candy as thin as possible. When cool enough to handle, break into pieces. Store in tightly closed jar or tin box. Yield 1 1/4 pounds.