Image from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.
The Seed and the Story is a weekly column published in the Post Dispatch, and syndicated in the Courier, exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, storytelling, human rights,and community in Yell County (and surrounding areas), Arkansas.
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This past week I was going through some old boxes when I came across my maternal grandmother’s recipes for Sorghum Molasses Cake and Sorghum Butter. Looking over her handwriting, the list of ingredients, and the lack of detailed directions, I was again reminded of just how much information family recipes can provide about family history, agriculture, and community life. As I imagined her wrinkled, beautiful hands whipping together the cake, I realized how long it’s been a since I’ve seen a patch of sweet sorghum growing in the central Arkansas.
Although the rates have fallen drastically since the 1980s, farmers still grow sorghum in Arkansas, but it’s mostly the grain variety rather than the sweet kind you can turn into molasses. In the mid 1900s, however, it was fairly common for families to grow a bit of sorghum for sweetener. Unlike refined sugar, which would have been harder to acquire in rural areas, sorghum was not only homegrown but also high in calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorus. In fact, studies claim that sorghum has a higher antioxidant quality than all fruits and vegetables except for perhaps pomegranate. Our grandparents may have not known it at the time, but baking with sorghum is decidedly healthier than any of the refined sugars we can purchase cheaply in today’s super markets.
When I was a young girl, one of my favorite things to do was go with my father to Mr. and Mrs. White’s house in Belleville and watch Mr. White and his mules make molasses. The details of the sorghum-making are a bit foggy to me now, but I can clearly recall the mules—strong, stubborn, surprisingly graceful—going around and around in a circle, operating the mill and crushing the stalks into thick, amber syrup. Mr. White would give me a portion of a raw sorghum cane to taste, and I can still imagine that root-like texture and the sweet, syrupy aftertaste.
I’d love to know more your sorghum memories and I’d especially love to hear about anyone who is still growing it today. If you happen to have any photos of sorghum or sorghum production we’d love to see those as well! We’ll keep record of all this information at the McElroy House: Organization for Folk life, Oral History and Community Action so they can be preserved for generations to come.
Below is my grandmother, Gold Faye Taylor McElroy’s, recipe exactly as written on the yellowed index card. As with most of her recipes, she never bothered to give any detailed directions, assuming, I suppose, that we’d all know the basics.
Sorghum Molasses Cake:
4 tablespoons shortening or butter
1 ½ cups sorghum
I cup buttermilk
Nutmeg or ginger
Flour enough for stiff batter.
Put in skillet and bake
2 cups sorghum
2 eggs well beaten
Put in skillet and cook. Remove and add 1 ½ teaspoon lemon juice.
I’d love to hear your sorghum stories, recipes and more. Do you grow sorghum? Did you family? Tell us about in the comments section below or click on the contact link to send an email! Thanks for reading.