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Save Our Sorghum!

Forces gather to promote a signature Southern grain.

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Leave it to a couple of Southern cookbook writers to get a little over-the-top about sorghum, your country grandma's likely source for syrup.

The Lee Brothers open their recipe for sorghum pecan pie thusly: "The secret to the most delicious pecan pie you've ever tasted is to retire that bottle of pallid corn syrup and replace it with sorghum molasses, whose deeply nuanced flavors, with notes of dried fruit, caramel, and nuts, are a superb match for the richness of pecans."

The writers go on to say that anything less would be an insult to your pecans, but you get the idea. The fact that the Lees, purveyors of such vocabulary as "pallid," "nuanced," and "notes," are talking about syrup can only mean that the old-is-new vibe of the sophisticated foodie world has reached humble old sorghum.

In fact, a renewed focus on sorghum is being fed not only by a wider interest in nutrition and food traditions — sorghum is on the slow food movement's "endangered food list" — but also by interest in it as a healthy alternative ingredient in making beer and even, yes, a possible source of biofuel.

But for Robin Rodriguez, leader of Slow Food Memphis, sorghum's appeal starts simply. "It is easier and cheaper to go to the store and grab some Aunt Jemima," she says, "but sorghum tastes better, and it's a natural product. It also takes less energy to bring sorghum syrup to your table than mass-production, and you're usually supporting a local grower when you buy it."

Slow Food Memphis is hosting a free sorghum tasting on Saturday, November 1st, at Casey Jones Village in Jackson, Tennessee. Starting at 10 a.m., you can get sorghum syrup, produced by Clinton Family Farms (clintonfamilyfarms.com) of Brownsville, poured over fresh biscuits. There will be presentations about slow food and about sorghum, and it happens that Casey Jones Village is also having a Celtic festival that day in conjunction with the Celtic Society of West Tennessee (see caseyjones.com for details).

According to the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association, U.S. production of the crop — imported from Africa in the 1860s to offset the need for sugar cane imports — topped out in the 1890s with 24 million gallons annually but dropped by 1975 to less than 400,000 gallons. It's been on a slow rise ever since, as the public looks for more natural, healthy ingredients.

The association says sorghum is loaded with iron, calcium, and potassium and can be spread on pancakes, waffles, biscuits, toast, or ice cream, as well as used in recipes for ginger snaps, stir-fry, barbecue sauce, and baked beans. It also can be a substitute for sugar, honey, corn syrup, or maple syrup.

Sometimes terms like "sorghum" and "molasses" get tossed around interchangeably, but true molasses is made from sugar cane. What's often called "sorghum" is really sorghum syrup (or "sorghum molasses"), which is made from sorghum cane.

But if you really want to appreciate its appeal, compare the list of ingredients on a bottle of sorghum molasses to that of, well, Aunt Jemima. Cellulose gum, anyone? How about sorbic acid or sodium hexametaphosphate?

Sorghum, a type of grass, is even said to be easier on the environment than sugar cane, which also appeals to the slow-food proponents.

"We talk about promoting foods that are 'good' in the sense that people should enjoy the pleasure of food in a way that also takes care of the health of the plants and animals that we consume," Rodriguez says. "For us, 'good' also means building community through a celebration of food and sustaining local food traditions. With sorghum, we also want to promote eating locally and make sure that these foods remain in production and on our plates."

In fact, Kentucky and Tennessee produce more sorghum than any other state. And this could be good economic news as sorghum starts to get some play as a possible source of ethanol. Although there's no ethanol-from-sorghum production in the United States, China and India, according to one report, produced 1.3 billion gallons that way last year.

There is a debate about the biofuel potential, but folks have definitely decided sorghum is worth partying over. For most of October, the town of Blairsville, Georgia, turns a part of its downtown into Fort Sorghum, wherein one can watch the syrup being made, purchase it in various forms, and enjoy, according to the website, a "biscuit eatin' contest, pole climbin', log sawin', rock throwin', horseshoe throwin', square dancing, and clogging."

I'm not sure if any of that will be going on in Jackson this weekend, but with sorghum, biscuits, and Celtic stuff happening, there's no tellin'.

For more information on this Saturday's sorghum tasting, go to slowfoodmemphis.com.

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