Star Magazine

Preserving sweet heritage at an old-time sorghum cookoff

Jan Aagaard (left) and Drew Dumas stir the sorghum juice as it boils down into syrup over a covered outdoor firebox.
Jan Aagaard (left) and Drew Dumas stir the sorghum juice as it boils down into syrup over a covered outdoor firebox. Special to the Star

At the bottom of a hill in a sheltered glade, toffee-colored sorghum syrup bubbles in a huge rectangular steel pan, scenting the crisp October air with caramel.

Fat logs flare and hiss inside the 12- by 4-foot stone firebox below the pan. Wes Heide, 40, shaded by a pitched roof, drags a wooden paddle through the thick amber liquid.

A candy thermometer confirms what Heide can tell by the drag on his paddle: The syrup is cooking fast.

The 120-some guests have barely finished lunch, but they jump into action, clearing the covered casseroles, barbecued meats and cakes from the picnic tables to make room for scores of pint and half-pint glass jars that the syrup will be poured into.

This is the 46th year the Heide family has held a harvest party to cut sweet sorghum by hand in the field, then press the stalks and boil the juice into syrup at this 160-acre farm 30 miles east of Wichita.

The Heide family tradition of growing sweet sorghum stretches back a century, to Wes’ great-grandfather, Frederick John Heide, who began farming along the Solomon River near Harlan in north-central Kansas in 1910.

Wes’ grandfather, Paul Heide, left the farm to work for Boeing in Wichita during World War II, then started his own grain merchandising business in the 1950s. But he missed the sorghum syrup of his boyhood and the social interaction of making it with friends and family.

In 1968, Paul purchased the current Heide farm, and the very next year, with four buddies, Paul planted and harvested a field of the 9-foot-tall stalks that yield the amber elixir.

“The guys would come several days during the week to do the stripping and cutting of the cane,” remembers Joe Heide, Wes’ dad. “Then on Saturday, cooking-off day, they would bring their families, and it would be a big potluck feast. Besides farmers, the other group that tended to come were people from their church in Wichita, so it was a mix of farmer types and city types.”

The cane was run through an antique press originally designed to be powered by donkeys. Wes Heide recalls seeing his grandmother riding a tractor around and around to run the press.

A few years later, Paul Heide bought the press that Joe and his sons use today, a cast iron behemoth with wagon wheel-size gears made by the Chattanooga Plow Co. The press is driven by a belt connected to the rusty remains of a 1948 Kaiser automobile.

The vintage press and automobile sit at the top of a small but steep hill in the shade of a massive burr oak tree. Bright green juice flows out a side chute of the press and into a metal milk can with a burlap filter over the top.

A hose connects the milk can to a large oval settling tank halfway down the hill. Another hose feeds the juice into the cooking pan on top of the firebox at the bottom of the hill.

The mechanical set-up resembles a Depression-era movie set.

But the plant itself is ancient.

A brief history of sorghum

Sorghum, both sweet sorghum and grain sorghum (also called milo), is native to Africa and has been cultivated since prehistoric times, says Ignacio Ciampitti, assistant professor of agronomy at Kansas State University.

“Sorghum was grown in Egypt and southern Asia at the time of our earliest records,” Ciampitti says.

Sweet sorghum was introduced to the U.S. in 1853, and milo probably in 1884 or 1885. Some strains came over from France and India, while others were carried as seeds by slaves.

Sweet sorghum was one of the first crops grown in Kansas, Ciampitti says, and it was planted widely in the state from the 1860s to 1890s. It grew easily in the dry conditions of the southern Plains, and the syrup gleaned from its juice made an amber-colored sweetener that was cheaper than refined sugar and milder-tasting than molasses, which is a byproduct of the sugar refining process.

In the 1890s, milo became a more important crop in Kansas. It was a drought-tolerant alternative to corn and made an excellent feed grain for cattle, which had become a major industry in the state.

By the turn of the century, sweet sorghum cultivation had shifted from the Midwest to the South, although family farms in the southern Plains continued to grow it for their own use.

For a while, sweet sorghum was the predominant table sweetener in the U.S., particularly in the South, but over time it fell out of favor as refined sugar got cheaper and corn syrup was introduced.

Sorghum production in the U.S. fell from a peak of 24 million gallons in the 1880s to a low-water mark of 400,000 gallons in the 1970s, according to National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Association. Today, sorghum is enjoying a resurgence thanks to rising demand for unrefined sweeteners and interest in heritage foods, with current output just under 1 million gallons per year.

Interest in sweet sorghum for biofuels and biochemicals is also boosting its cultivation, Ciampitti says. Kentucky leads the country in sweet sorghum production; Kansas is the top producer of milo.

A sorghum revival

Sorghum is a key ingredient in African-American cooking, says Adrian Miller, Denver-based author of James Beard award-winning book “Soul Food.”

Slaves brought sorghum seeds from Africa and grew sorghum for grains and syrup across the South, Miller says.

“Slaves didn’t have access to refined sugar, except on weekends and holidays, so some of the earliest desserts were cornbread or a biscuit with sorghum poured over it,” he says.

Miller has seen a big increase in the use of sorghum as a sweetener over the last couple of years, especially in “new Southern” restaurants.

“It has a great taste. When the Lee brothers came out with their ‘Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook,’ they included a sorghum pecan pie recipe. When you cook it, it turns out kind of chocolaty; it’s awesome,” Miller says.

Besides being a great-tasting natural sweetener, sorghum has important cultural significance in the South and the Midwest.

“In the antebellum South there were all these food work parties like hog butcherings. Sorghum-making — or syrup boilings as they called them — were definitely a part of rural life,” Miller says.

The 46-year syrup boiling on the Heide farm is firmly rooted in that cultural tradition.

Autumn gathering is a family affair

An agricultural operation in which more than 100 people work for two days to produce 25 gallons of syrup might seem like economic folly. Especially when the hosts of the event, Joe and Jane Heide, are 70 and 69, respectively, and live in Kansas City.

Joe runs a small-business consulting company with his son Nate, 36, and Jane recently retired as pastor of Rosedale Congregational Church. The couple sell produce from the farm at the Rosedale Farmers Market on Sundays. (They don’t sell the syrup because that would require processing it in a commercial kitchen.)

The farm doesn’t have a house on it, so the Heides and harvest party guests stay in motels in El Dorado or Andover, a half-hour’s drive, if they want to participate both days.

But the annual event is anything but folly to Jane.

“I love the gathering, the family — and I count the friends that come as family — coming together in the outdoors,” she says. “It’s so heartwarming: the kids playing on the farm, the old people, the tradition. It’s quite wonderful.”

Wes’ and Nate’s children make the fifth generation of Heides producing sorghum syrup in Kansas. Some family members travel every year from the edges of the country — Texas, Washington state, Maryland — to carry on the tradition. This year a niece and her family came from Vienna, Austria.

Some non-family members have been coming for as long as 20 years.

Gina Pulliam of Kansas City has been coming for about 10 years. She and her husband heard about the annual event when Jane was pastor of their church.

“From their description it just seemed like a wonderful way to spend a fall day, being outdoors with family and friends, walking the trails, picking apples and cooking sorghum. And it was, and it has been every year. It has become part of our fall, and we really look forward to it,” Pulliam says.

Every year, Pulliam makes a gingerbread recipe from a spiral-bound cookbook of Heide family sorghum recipes.

It’s a moist, dense, chocolaty brown loaf redolent of cinnamon, cloves and ginger.

“Who doesn’t love gingerbread?” Pulliam asks.

The syrup boiling and potluck feast usually happen the first Saturday in October. The work begins the day before.

First, five or six adults head down to the acre-and-a-half field of sorghum and chop down the stalks with machetes. One at a time.

Doing it once is enough to understand why many family farms let the tradition go. First you grasp the scratchy stalk up high and sweep the machete down both sides to strip the leaves. Then you hold the knife over your head and flick the blade at an upward angle to lop off the seed head.

Next you bend the stalk at a 45-degree angle near the base and give it a fierce whack, being careful to avoid your foot and shin. Now do it again, a hundred times or more. When you get hot and thirsty, you can bend a stalk and suck the sweet-bitter juice from the cracks.

After the entire field has been chopped to 6-inch yellow stubble, the cane is loaded onto a hayrack and pulled by a tractor to the press. Crushed stalks left after pressing, called pummy, are pulled on a pallet into the woods and dumped for animals to forage on. They are too fibrous to break down well in a compost pile.

Friday evening all the guests pitch in to lay a fire in the firebox.

Beginning early Saturday morning, when the fire is lit, it must be tended constantly, Wes Heide says.

It’s important to create an even temperature up and down the 10-foot length of the syrup pan so hot spots don’t develop. Also, the syrup must be stirred continuously to prevent sticking. Wes Heide uses the same 3-foot wooden paddles his grandfather used.

When the syrup reaches the right consistency, typically after 5 to 7 hours, it is drained into nickel-plated jugs with spigots at the bottom. The jugs are carried to a picnic table, and helpers fill individual jars from the spigots.

Like honey, sorghum syrup is shelf-stable for a very, very long time.

Joe Heide’s favorite things to make with sorghum are gingersnap cookies and gingerbread. But sorghum syrup is mild enough to be poured directly over pancakes and biscuits. It is also used as a milder alternative to molasses in baked beans, barbecue sauce, bread and cinnamon rolls.

Sorghum can be substituted cup for cup in any recipe that calls for molasses, honey, corn syrup or maple syrup. It is a good source of iron, calcium and potassium. Before the invention of daily vitamins, many doctors prescribed sorghum as a daily supplement for those low in these nutrients, which explains why it used to be found only in health food stores before its recent renaissance.

Now you can find it in most large grocery stores in the city. The farm-to-market movement and local celebrity chefs who specialize in local flavors have driven the sorghum revival.

Jonathan Justus, chef/owner of Justus Drugstore in Smithville and a James Beard award semifinalist, says he always has sorghum syrup in the kitchen.

“We use it a lot,” Justus says. “We just had a dish where we took sorghum and reduced it together with a clover flower vinegar that we made to make what the French call gastrique, a kind of sweet-sour sauce. We used it on a dish that was parsnip puree with lamb belly fritters and compressed pear.”

Currently Justus’ menu features popped sorghum berries (the round seeds clustered at the top of sweet sorghum and milo). “They don’t have kernels, and they have a really nice, nutty flavor. The ones that don’t pop are delicious too,” he says.

Sorghum also has a year-round presence in the dining room of Justus Drugstore: The tabletops, which resemble bamboo, were made by a local woodworker out of sorghum cane.

An art, not a science

As helpers run to make room for a sped-up bottling operation, Wes Heide says this year’s juice yield was lower than usual, just 160 gallons compared to 250, probably because of delayed planting in a late, wet spring. Less juice spread out over the large surface area of the pan probably caused it to reduce faster than usual.

Asked what temperature the sorghum needs to reach, he says, “That is the most important thing, and it is a secret. I can’t tell you because nobody ever told me.” He chuckles then adds, “There are parts of the process that are not written down anywhere; you just have to know them somehow.”

The real answer, he says, is between 222 and 225 degrees. “But it’s an art, not a science at that stage,” he says. “As you’re stirring you can feel the viscosity by how the syrup is resisting the paddles. You can feel when it starts to thicken and see when the bubbles start to get between quarter size and half dollar size.”

Like all agricultural endeavors, the crop is slightly different each year, and something invariably goes wrong.

“There always comes a point where we look at each other and say, ‘It’s not about the sorghum,’” Jane says. “Because it’s not. This year it cooked really fast, but another year it had rained and rained, so the wood was soaked and the fire wouldn’t burn hot.

“The sorghum didn’t turn and it didn’t turn and it didn’t turn. Everybody was going home, and we brought cars down and turned the headlights on to illuminate the cooking pan. It looked like a scene from ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ or something, with the steam rising and the headlights shining. We finally took the syrup off around 8 o’clock.”

Jane laughs and shakes her head.

“That was another time we all said, ‘It’s not about the sorghum.’ Because it really isn’t. It’s about our relationship with nature and with each other. The sorghum is the conduit, the stickiness you could say, that creates a bond.”

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindyHoedel, and on Facebook.

Sorghum tips

Sorghum can be stored indefinitely at room temperature. Like honey, it can crystallize, but putting the glass jar in a pan of warm water or heating it in the microwave will restore it to liquid form.

Sorghum is sold at natural food stores, including Whole Foods, and many regular grocery stores. In the Kansas City area, much of the bottled sorghum sold in stores is produced in Iowa, but northeast-Missouri-made Sandhill Farm sorghum is carried by Nature’s Pantry Market in Independence and Super-Natural Health Food Center in Grandview. Most sorghum is bottled in its pure state, but read the label to make sure.

Great-Grandma Heide’s Gingerbread

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs, slightly beaten

1 cup sorghum

2 cups sifted flour

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup hot water

2 teaspoons baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a loaf pan.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add eggs and sorghum and mix thoroughly.

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the large bowl. In hot water, dissolve the baking soda and add to other ingredients. Beat until smooth.

Pour into loaf pan.

Bake 35-45 minutes until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool before serving.

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