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Keeping sorghum syrup tradition alive in South Carolina

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Keeping sorghum syrup tradition alive in South Carolina

Hanna Raskin

Today is Rosh Hashanah, which marks the start of a new year on the Hebrew calendar. To ring in 5775, Jews across the U.S. will swipe apple slices through honey, a custom that's supposed to signify desire for a sweet year ahead.

Apples became synonymous with Rosh Hashanah during the Diaspora, when Jews living in northern Germany and eastern Europe had access to far fewer sweet fruits than their ancestors in the Middle East enjoyed. Apples were available and passably round, a shape that exemplifies the holiday's association with the cyclical nature of time. But there's no Biblical dictum requiring apples.

Bee honey isn't obligatory either: In ancient days, Jews probably used sticky molasses made from overripe dates. And it occurred to me recently that sorghum syrup could serve the same purpose in the Southeast, where sweet sorghum has thrived since its introduction from Africa more than 150 years ago.

The outlook for sorghum cane is good. Lately, though, the scholars and activists who fiercely guard the region's endangered food traditions have started worrying about the survival of syrup-making know-how. So Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts and University of South Carolina professor David Shields this month arranged for Joe Trapp - labeled "the midlands master of the mysteries of sorghum" by Shields - to oversee a sorghum boil manned by a designated syrup successor.

Sorghum boils -- variously known as cook-offs or squeezes, depending on where they're held - are often avidly-anticipated community events. But there wasn't much notice preceding Trapp's torch pass: As soon as the heirloom honey drip sorghum harvested from a Hopkins field registered 17 brix on a refractometer, the boil was scheduled for the following morning.

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"Y'all come," commanded the subject line of an e-mail sent to a few unsuspecting recipients.

According to Shields, when Trapp first made syrup, he relied on pacing mules to power his press. Now he runs the cane through a motorized crusher, producing the scummy green juice that ends up in the evaporator pan. Aswirl in the sleeping bag-sized pan, set into a wood-fired pit, the cane juice has a vegetal aroma: Shields compared it to simmering green beans and warmed muscadines. (I detected clear notes of Campbell's alphabet soup, which might well be my primitive Midwestern brain's analogue for green beans.)

Although Trapp has given up the mules, little else about the process has changed. Making syrup still takes endless skimming with cheap wire strainers, accompanied by lots of country philosophizing. For hours, attendees alternated skimming with wandering off, sometimes nabbing fried chicken and hash from a nearby picnic table and sometimes - in Trapp's case - calling up man cave pictures on an iPad.

The juice in the smaller of two evaporator pans reached syrup stage around 2 p.m.: Trapp eyed the color, then spilled it from a ladle, looking for the signature "flake." Trapp's appointed apprentice James Helms - a working farmer, rather than a mere heritage food believer - stood nearby as the sorghum was spooned onto homemade Portuguese sweet bread. It certainly appears that the cycle of sorghum knowledge will continue, making for very, very sweet years ahead.

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