Sorghum Festival (article)
The Old Pinch Sorghum Festival
Family and friend get togethers can take on a new meaning when old techniques are revived to recreate an event that took place in everyday lives as recently as 70 years ago. I was recently privileged to have been invited to one of these events in Southern Illinois. Sorghum has been raised as a crop for centuries and its use as a sweetener became prominent in times of war when sugar was scarce or too expensive. The growing, harvesting and processing of Sorghum Cane to make the sweet syrup is back breaking, hot work. But, those who gather family and friends together to do this process using the old manual methods would probably refer to it more as “rewarding” though and I can certainly concur with this having recently attending the second annual Old Pinch Sorghum Festival at a family farm in Southern Illinois.
It was a two hour drive from my home to attend the Festival. A drive that took me through some of the most beautiful farm lands I have ever seen. The crops of Soy beans, Corn and Sorghum spread out across large fields, sparkling like gold in the morning sun. The leaves on the trees in the forests lining these fields were just beginning to turn into those magnificent fall colors. The earthy smells rode the breeze through my car windows reminding me of my youth and growing up on my parent’s farm. The drive there took me through small towns and down small country roads, some without names and directions that read turn left at the Telephone Exchange Building as an example. As I drove down one of those nameless roads it was hard to miss the site of the Festival. There was ample parking and lots of people had brought campers to make it a whole weekend event. A large wooded area had been set up with tables and seating. I would guess that there were at least one hundred family members, neighbors and friends gathered for the event.
After finding a parking spot I walked up to a table where they asked me to sign in and offered me some literature on the Festival, a flyer with recipes and a small bottle of Sorghum Syrup that had been processed the day before. Walking into the wooded area I noted that there were tables laden with food brought by attendees, people cooking chili and butter bean soup in large cast iron kettles over open fire pits, Cobblers being baked in hot coals, tubs of soft drinks and water on ice, and children everywhere. The desert table was of particular interest with a wide variety of cookies made with Sorghum as one of the ingredients. The smells floating on the air made my mouth water and I could feel my stomach rumble in anticipation.
For days prior to the event, members of the family and friends had gathered in the local fields to harvest the Sorghum cane using the old methods. It was cut with a machete and the leaves stripped from the cane by hand. It is backbreaking, hard work and generally lasted from sun up to sunset. I heard one person telling a friend who came to the event that they had worn through one pair of gloves in a single day during this process. Harvesting the cane can take days depending on the size and number of fields. With the leaves stripped the cane can last for up to two months before being processed but the amount of juice that can be extracted does diminish with time.
The cane is taken from the fields to the wooded area where the festival is held and the amount is noted for each farm. Here the cane is loaded by hand into a presser to extract the juice which is then filtered into a large tub. Piping runs from the tub to a small shed where a very large cooking pan is located; there it is heated and stirred constantly. The pan is divided into three areas that the juice has to pass through to get to the point where it is finally ready to pour into containers. There is a large wood fire burning under the pan and the heat and steam rising from the processing area was constant. At times it was so thick you could barely see the people stirring the juice and passing it through the three stages. It was very hot work and you could almost see people losing weight as they worked their stations. At times there were up to eight people working the Sorghum juice through the pans stages. There were dozens of people helping with the pressing and processing of the Sorghum Cane and its juice to get to the final product which is the Sorghum Syrup. It is fascinating to watch this process and see the pea green Sorghum juice turn into the delicious brown syrup.
Those helping in the process were constantly changing as new hands showed up and tired hands left to socialize with family and friends. Food was prepared and shared with everyone, hot dogs cooked on sticks over a fire pit, apple juice prepared fresh and shared, other drinks were free plus much much more. Small groups of people gathered and caught up, new friends were made, a couple of birthdays celebrated by everyone and no one was a stranger for long. It was an amazing day and one I hope to experience throughout the years to come.
There are many Sorghum Festivals held throughout the Midwest during the Fall. A quick search on the Internet and you will find them being held in Illinois, Kentucky, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Carolina. I highly recommend you attend one.