by David Cecelski
This past weekend I attended the Old School Sorghum Festival in McDaniels Crossroads in Sampson County. It was a blast. For the last 14 years, a local couple, John and Annie Matthews, has been making sweet sorghum from scratch and taking one day every fall to celebrate the pleasures of its old-fashioned sweetness.
At first, the Matthews made their sweet sorghum just for family and friends. Now, with the help of their children, grandchildren, and neighbors, they welcome more than a thousand people every year to this little rural community between Roseboro and Garland.
For many who grew up before WWII, sweet sorghum on biscuits is one of those quintessential tastes of childhood. People put it on grits and pancakes for breakfast, made bread with it, and used it in pies, cookies, and cakes. For many families, especially in hard times, homegrown sorghum provided the only sweetener available.
The popularity of sweet sorghum faded long ago, though, mostly, from what I’ve heard, because it’s so labor intensive to harvest sorghum. Now almost all the sorghum grown in the U.S. is used for silage and fodder. And finding sweet sorghum—or sorghum molasses, as it’s often called—to put on a biscuit or pancakes is just about impossible.
But not in McDaniels Crossroad. Mr. Matthews grows about a half-acre of sorghum every year. He harvests the tall, cane-like stalks in the fall, just before the festival, and hauls them to the site of the old Mintz community school, where the festival is held every 3rd Saturday of October. He squeezes the juice out of the raw sorghum with a vintage cane mill, and then boils that juice for 5 or 6 hours to make the rich, golden brown syrup—heavier than most honey, but lighter than cane molasses.
You can see the whole process at the festival. I especially enjoyed listening to Mr. Matthews talk about the finer points of making sweet sorghum as he stirred the boiling juice and skimmed off impurities.
The festival had lots of music, dancing, exhibitions of traditional crafts, and other entertainment, too, plus you could buy sweet sorghum by the pint, sorghum cookies, and even sorghum and biscuits. I had my first sweet sorghum biscuit ever, and now I know what the old folks are talking about.
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You can learn more about the Old School Sorghum Festival, including how to order sweet sorghum, at www.oldschoolsorghum.com/