Sorghum isn’t native to the United States. It was brought here by slaves and became an integral part of Southern agriculture. By the 1850s, farmers were using these tall stalks to augment cattle feed.
Sorghum stalks were crushed through rollers to extract juice, which was boiled to thicken it and concentrate its sweetness. Called molasses in the South, sorghum has the viscosity of honey with a color ranging from light golden yellow to the shade of blackstrap. Like grade-A maple syrup, the best sorghum is said to be light-colored, but many Southerners are suspicious of a light-colored syrup.
The Holbrook family’s syrup is dark. Four Holbrook brothers – William, Wendell, Lenville, and Tim – are in the seasonal sorghum business just outside West Liberty, where an annual sorghum festival is held the last full weekend in September, even while the town still recovers from a 2012 tornado.
The Holbrooks make and sell sorghum starting in mid-August. They need to have 1,000 gallons in time for the festival, according to Tim, 57, an engineer who works one of the three evaporation pans on weekends during sorghum season. Lenville, 77, the farmer brother, sits at the end of a 12-foot long evaporator seven days a week for 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 months.
Channels in the evaporator slow the flow of juice as it runs over a tunnel of high heat, until at the end, where Lenville sits, it has become a dark, thick syrup with large bubbles. Lenville watches the syrup as it flows through, and when the bubble size is right, he uses a paddle to scrape it into a funnel. Brother Wendell, 79, sits low to the ground and controls the spigot that fills a variety of bottles holding from 3.4 ounces to a quart of sorghum. Customers come in a constant stream on sunny weekends.
You can find Holbrook sorghum at U.S. Highway 460 W., West Liberty. For more information call (606) 743-3776.
Sorghum Ginger Snaps
3/4 C lard or shortening
1 C sugar
1/3 C sorghum
2 C all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
Extra sugar for rolling
Beat shortening and sugar until blended, and then beat in egg and sorghum. Add remaining ingredients except extra sugar and beat to blend. Cover tightly and refrigerate an hour or more. Form into 1 1/2-inch balls and roll in sugar, placing them 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes for soft cookies, a minute or two longer for snaps. Makes about 3 dozen.
Apple Butter Ginger Cake
1 3/4 C all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp salt
6 Tbsp soft butter
1/3 C sugar
1 large egg
3/4 C apple butter (or applesauce)
2/3 C buttermilk (or plain yogurt)
1 C heavy cream, beaten until stiff peaks form
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8 x 8-inch baking pan.
On a piece of waxed paper or in a bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, ginger, cloves, and salt. In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy. Add sugar and beat until blended well. Beat in egg, then apple butter and buttermilk. Add dry ingredients and stir to blend well. Pour into greased baking pan and bake about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool, then dust with powdered sugar. Serve with unsweetened whipped cream. Serves 6.