In the early 1970s, a South Carolina Electric and Gas Co. executive started sidelining in sorghum, believing the moment for the grain’s revival had arrived. Charlotte Walker, The News and Courier’s food editor, heartily agreed: “There is so much interest in sorghum at this time!” she enthused in response to his experiments, publicized in a column featuring recipes for four different sorghum-based pies.
Sorghum is again commanding attention. The ancient grain is naturally gluten-free, which has helped increase sorghum demand. A Kansas miller who sells sorghum flour to producers of gluten-free baked goods last year told NPR that orders were up about 30 percent from the previous year. But even after the gluten-free fad has faded, sorghum will still thrive in hot, dry conditions, a property that has assumed added importance as farmers contend with long-lasting droughts.
“I like that the sorghum plant is not so thirsty like sugar cane,” says Bill Bowick of Sugar Bakeshop in Charleston.
Much of the U.S.-grown sorghum is used to feed animals in China, which in 2014 imported 15 times as much sorghum as it did in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But humans also find sorghum delicious, especially when it’s turned into syrup and served with biscuits.
Originally from northeastern Africa, sorghum probably reached Asia in the first millennium. It came to America aboard slave ships, but wasn’t grown in any significant quantities until the mid-19th century, when agronomists became attuned to the grain’s sugar content.
One of the early adopters was S.C. Gov. James Henry Hammond. He planted dozens of acres of sweet sorghum and shared seeds with friends, a tactic that helped him recover the public standing he’d surrendered after a family sex scandal.
“It took no time at all for the experimental community to realize that these tall, corn-like grasses promised to be a wonder plant,” David Shields writes in “Southern Provisions: The Creation & Revival of a Cuisine.”
Northerners discomfited by the sugar industry’s reliance on slave labor were especially excited about sorghum’s prospects. Hundreds of them responded to the U.S. Patent Office’s offer of a free packet of seeds. But the grain rose to still greater prominence in the South after the Civil War choked off the sugar supply.
“The land was ‘submerged in sorghum,’ ” an 1888 report in Century reminisced. “It sweetened the coffee, tea and all the desserts of the time. Every place was redolent of it; everything was sticking with it.”
Many Southerners believed they could surmount the economic hardships of wartime by living off sorghum. They ended up with pellagra, as well as black teeth, a consequence of boiling sorghum juice in iron vessels. Captive Union soldiers fed a diet of cornbread and sorghum suffered the same fate: “Camp Sorghum” in Columbia earned its nickname from the standard prison menu.
Sorghum never became a serious competitor in the sweetening realm. Even after scientists figured out how to refine sugar from the plant, the costs associated with it were so steep that consumers were better off buying Louisiana cane sugar. Until the 1920s though, a jug of sorghum syrup — often called by the misnomer “molasses” — graced kitchen tables across the South. Nowadays, it’s largely unknown in most households outside of Appalachia, although it’s a favorite of Charleston chefs, and the primary grain in High Wire Distilling Co.’s Revival Whiskey.
Flavor-oriented eaters have been voicing the same lament for decades. Robert E. Babb Jr., who “regret(s) the scarcity of sorghum at this time,” provided one of The News and Courier’s pie recipes.
All of the recipes are essentially simple chess pies, specifying sorghum. But the Plantation Sorghum Custard Pie, attributed to “a pen pal who lives on a plantation not far away,” incorporates buttermilk, in addition to eggs, flour and butter.
Bowick reports the recipe as written didn’t need much fixing, although the filling turned out “a bit wiggly.”
“We considered baking this pie with fresh figs or other fruit on top,” he says, adding, “We all agree here that this pie would be great served with ice cream.”