A Georgia festival honors a syrupy culinary tradition with an acquired taste.
It was September 1969, and I was 10 years old. With each fall morning, frost sprinkled the North Georgia mountains with a white glaze and told of winter’s inevitability. Rousing me from a warm bed was next to impossible. However, daddy’s 6 a.m. ritual became my alarm clock, enticing me from sleep and goading me to make the leap from bed to table with a quilt in tow. The aroma of fresh baked biscuits and a distinct spicy sweetness mingled with butter announced morning, and daddy was in rise-and-shine mode with his accompaniments of butter and sorghum syrup.
The next month, we would travel some 50 miles across the Blue Ridge to Blairsville, a hamlet of only a few hundred residents, to the first-ever Blairsville Sorghum Festival. We had to acquire our yearly stockpile of syrup, but long before there was a festival, we’d travel to the farms to buy cases filled with jars of onyx liquid for our family and community. This year, daddy would have his sorghum, and I would have some fun.
Many decades later, the ritual continues as the art of turning cane juice into sweet sorghum preserves Georgia’s long-standing tradition of culinary richness. Always a fall crop and once a cash crop that garnered more money than liquor, sorghum’s dark, rich consistency bewitches visitors as they gather around the mill for a firsthand lesson in making the syrup. Production is always dictated by the harvest, with the second week in October being its prime. Kim Bridges, president of the Blairsville Sorghum Festival Club, remembers enjoying it as much as I did.
“It was always so exciting to get to go to the Sorghum Festival,” she says. “My father-in-law was one of the founding members. [In the beginning], it was just a few dressed in old-time clothes standing around the old courthouse selling the syrup. It has evolved into so much more now. There is a lot of very hard work put into this festival as we grow, harvest, grind and make the syrup ourselves.”
The festival, scheduled for two weekends in the middle of October, has also endeared the town of Blairsville to a new generation, as its residents showcase a Southern tradition that produces fewer than one million gallons per year. Bridges says that the “Sorghum Festival has been a big part of Blairsville’s heritage since 1969. It has been a way of showing and sharing with people from all over the world the art of cane grinding and syrup making. It has become a way of life for the people in Blairsville.”
Many compare sorghum to molasses, which isn’t far from the truth. While molasses is derived from the process of making cane sugar, sorghum is made only from the juice of the sorghum cane, not a byproduct. It comes from squeezing the green juice from the tall stalks and boiling it until it’s thick and golden. True sorghum syrup is still produced in the old, time-honored fashion in an open pan, and at the festival, visitors can watch the process, complete with mule power and wood fires blazing.
“Not everyone is a fan,” adds Bridges, “but many people that do love it will eat it on everything from buttered biscuits and pancakes to just dipping it right out of the jar.” Her favorite way? Adding sorghum syrup to Brunswick Stew. “It’s like eating a little taste of heaven.”
One of sorghum’s biggest fans is Linton Hopkins, executive chef at Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta who, along with other Southern chefs, is returning this staple to the dinner table. He supplies his pantry with sorghum from the Hughes Family farm in Union County, Georgia, as well as from the Blairsville Festival and Muddy Pond in Tennessee.
“Sorghum has been at Eugene since day one,” he explains. “It was a totem, an often times forgotten ingredient which helped me create a pantry defining what it means to be a chef in Georgia.” Sorghum’s versatile flavor – a sour, grassy, sweet taste – allows uses in savory dishes as well as pairing with cheese and desserts. Hopkins also points out that it’s not simply a “throwback to the past, but it speaks to the regionality of our foods, a way of dividing our country up not by political lines, but by the type of sweetener you use. It is what I love about Southern food, how we can build our future while not forgetting our past.”
Hopkins remembers attending the festival as a boy with his family. “I have since been back with my own kids,” he says. “The hot sorghum just off the run on fresh biscuits with butter is a memory everyone should have.”
There’s a sweet spot for most Southerners when it comes to sorghum. The traditional breakfast of biscuits and butter, drizzled with sorghum, can rouse the sleepiest child and cause thousands to gather to watch swirling sugar make its way into Mason jars. This memory-making Southern delight isn’t reserved for biscuits anymore, but has made its way into the imagination of every cook seeking an earthy, syrupy explosion.
The 2013 Sorghum Festival will take place October 12-13 and 19-20. Special appearances by Hazzard Life and the Carolina Moonshiners are two of the most anticipated performers at this year’s festival. In addition, the music lineup offers a taste of everything from authentic bluegrass to downhome country. For a full schedule of events, including the biscuit eating contest, parade, car show and square dance at dusk, visit the festival’s website here.
Click here to get a recipe for Sorghum Cornbread.
Photos, except Chef Hopkins, provided by the Blairsville Sorghum Festival Club.