Book Review: Ronni Lundy Guides Us to ‘Sorghum’s Savor’
by Ronni Lundy
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015
When I was a boy in Clay County we would frequently have preachers visit as we didn’t have our own preacher at the small Pine Grove church. Often they would eat at our house, sometimes spending the night. One of the visiting preachers I liked most was “bro. Craig.” He was always friendly to me and had a good sense of humor. But there’s one thing in particular I remember about him: he would often bring sorghum syrup with him, or molasses, as we called it.
My father is a beekeeper, so the sticky sweet liquid we had readily available was honey. Sorghum was something special and remarkably different. I loved its tanginess, and it wasn’t something we had all the time. Sorghum with butter on a hot biscuit simply cannot be improved upon.
Ronni Lundy, a native of Corbin only 40 minutes away from my native Clay County (and bro. Craig also happened to be from near Corbin), begins her new book Sorghum’s Savor with her own childhood memories of sorghum. It was a common thing back then, as Lundy notes: “Sorghum syrup was in the pantry or on the table all my early life, and for a long time I assumed that was so for everyone.”
As Lundy discovered when she left Kentucky, sorghum was a treasure to be sought and hoarded like a dragon chasing gold.
Sorghum is the South’s answer to maple syrup. Like maple syrup, it’s a reduction boiled down in the fall. But while maple syrup is harvested from mature trees, sorghum is taken from a annual crop of sorghum, a grass that resembles corn. The stalks contain a sweet liquid that is squeezed and reduced to produce what is known as sweet sorghum syrup.
As Lundy explains, the “right” name for sweet sorghum is a matter of some confusion. Sorghum cane was sometimes called “sugar cane”—which it isn’t—and the end product traditionally called “molasses”—which it isn’t. Lundy writes, “But sweet sorghum syrup isn’t technically true molasses. Molasses is a by-product of the refining process used to make sugar.”
Sorghum makers, retailers, and the cooks who use it, have made a concerted effort to consistently use the name “sorghum” rather than “molasses” to erase this confusion. But for those who have called it molasses all their lives the change can create its own confusion.
In the mid-19th century sorghum was tried as an alternative to sugar cane, but sorghum doesn’t crystallize easily, and in the deeper South it was abandoned in favor of sugar cane. But sugar can cannot be grown in the upper South, and buying processed white sugar required hard earned cash. “In the upper South, however, sweet sorghum had a second life. In the mountain South, particularly, it became a cash crop for some middle-class planters and a source of homegrown sweetening for poorer black, white, and American Indian families of the region.” Lundy points out that sorghum provided a native sweetener for an independence-minded people.
Sorghum is not a “neutral” sweetener as we typically consider cane sugar to be. Like honey’s taste changes depending on the flowers from which it comes, sorghum’s taste will vary depending on the region and soil type, even the particular year of production. And sorghum has an earthy, rich taste that is unlike any other sweetener.
This is something that Louisville chef Edward Lee discovered through a chance encounter with sorghum, one that made him a devotee of the syrup. Lee explains in one of Lundy’s pull-out features in the book she calls “Long Sweeteners” (a term used in the mountains to refer to sorghum while “short sweetener” was cane sugar): “It has more depth and range than honey, a more complex umami. And I thought, ‘Why am I using a sweetener from a thousand miles away when this is right up the road?
“I bought a whole box filled with sorghum jars and told my cooks, throw out the honey we have and just use this.”
Lundy intersperses her history and explanation of sorghum with several of these “Long Sweetener” features with people like Midway chef Ouita Michel and Rona Roberts, author of Sweet, Sweet Sorghum: Kentucky’s Golden Wonder (read my review of Rona’s Classic Kentucky Meals). Different chefs, cooks, and sorghum producers discuss the syrup from their own angle.
Lundy’s narrative takes up the first third of Sorghum’s Savor, but the final 100 pages are filled with recipes using sorghum and also recipes for items to use with sorghum. Lundi includes such gems as Ouita Michel’s biscuit recipe–perfect for butter and sorghum–and “new classics” like sorghum and grits ice cream from Edward Lee. From breads and breakfasts, to salads, to cocktails, to pies and cookies (favorites of mine), Lundy has covered all the bases.
Lundy is well qualified for this book, having written such highly regarded books as Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken, Butterbeans to Blackberries, and In Praise of Tomatoes. She knows Kentucky cuisine as a native, and that experience well informs her discussion of sorghum.
The sorghum belt is essentially the same as the ham belt, the Upper South where Southern sensibilities meet true winter. It’s a unique region with a cuisine unlike any other. Anyone interested in exploring both sorghum’s past and its future will find Lundy a fine guide to one of that cuisine’s true treasures.
[Listen to an interview with Ronni Lundy at What’s Cookin’ Now!]