NEW YORK STATE SORGHUM: A MARKET STORY
About six years ago, I’d heard that a couple of farmers, two brothers, from the Catskills region had started making sorghum syrup, a tangy, deep-flavored sweetener better known south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I filed the information away, then forgot about it; I always seem to have a jar of the stuff, lugged back from a visit to Mississippi or Georgia, sitting in the refrigerator.
Last week, I noticed our supply was getting low, real low. I generally take this as a sign it’s time to make travel plans, but not this year—I’m juggling way too much. I wrote myself a note to order some, and that’s as far as I got. And then, by the happiest of coincidences, I met Tony VanGlad, one of those sorghum-makers, at the Union Square market on Saturday, subbing for his brother, who usually sells just their Wood Homestead maple syrup there. Tony sells both maple and sorghum syrups at the Tucker Square market*, on the Upper West Side, and had a few jars of the latter front and center. “I think we’re the only business growing sorghum up North,” he said. He made my weekend.
Now, about sorghum. The plant (Sorghum bicolor) is a tall canelike grass topped by a heavy tassel of seeds. Grain sorghum is a staple in the arid tropics; its threshed grain is ground into flour and the stalks are used for livestock feed. The succulent stalks of another type, sweet sorghum, contain as much as ten percent sucrose; during harvesting, the juice is squeezed out of the plant and cooked down into thick syrup** the color of mahogany and rich with antioxidants, potassium and other nutrients. For the past month, in pockets of north Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and as far west as Indiana, sorghum is being harvested and celebrated in festivals. It’s a culinary icon of the American South. Of course, just like many other foods that wear this label—okra, peanuts, and black-eyed peas, for instance—sorghum is from Africa.
Cultivated for more than 5,000 years, sorghum is, in fact, perhaps the oldest grain in Africa, and, along with millet, one of the planet’s most drought-resistant. In In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World, Judith A. Carney, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, describes sorghum as a surpassing botanical marvel. “It can be planted in both temperate and tropical zones, with or without much rainfall,” she explains. “It grows in infertile soils, tolerates salinity, and produces a cereal that minimally taxes soil nutrients.”
In colonial days, you would have found sorghum cultivated in America and the Caribbean for animal fodder and grown in slave food fields. Some centuries on, it’s largely grown for forage in the U.S., although some have started calling it a next-generation biofuel.
The VanGlad farm has taken another direction. The family is already growing barley and hops for the younger generation’s hyper-local Tundra Brewery, which includes Ma-Pale Ale (made with the farm’s maple syrup) and, come late fall, a gluten-free beer, made with freshly harvested sorghum. And they’re selling 55-gallon drums of sorghum syrup to a Catskills craft distillery, KyMar Farm, that’s making triple-distilled Schoharie Shine. With the barest flicker of a wink, Tony said, “They’re the first ‘licensed’ distillery in the county since Prohibition.”
One of these days, I’ll have to get my hands on some, but until then, I’m more than happy with Tony’s sorghum syrup. I’ll swirl some into barbecue sauce or or a marinade, or deglaze a pan with sorghum and a hit of bourbon and drizzle that over pork chops or a steak. It is delicious straight, on vanilla ice cream, cornbread, pancakes, waffles, or oatmeal. Buttermilk biscuits, too, obviously, although if you really want to put on the dog, serve them with the sorghum butter below.
When buying sorghum syrup, be aware that some brands are cut with corn syrup. Make sure the label reads “100% sorghum.”
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup 100% sorghum syrup
Stir together butter and sorghum until combined well and refrigerate for up to a week. Bring it to room temperature before serving.
* The VanGlads’ Blenheim Hill sorghum syrup (along with their Wood Homestead maple syrup) is available on Saturdays at the Tucker Square Greenmarket (Columbus Ave. at 66th St.) or directly from the farm (866-337-9787).
** The syrup is the principal product of sweet sorghum, unlike darker, more assertive molasses, which is a byproduct of refined-sugar manufacturing.