WV Culinary Team: Sorghum mills a nearly lost tradition in Appalachia
By Mike Costello // Oct 15, 2017
TALLMANSVILLE — Just a few miles down a narrow winding road from Buckhannon, a carved wooden sign welcomes visitors to Tallmansville. At first glance, there’s not much to the rural village of about 400 residents, situated in the mountains of Upshur County. But first glance seldom shows the extent to which mountain communities are proudly interwoven.
Just past the volunteer fire department, a plain brick post office stands alone in front of a meadow of tall, leafy stalks, whose tops have bronzed slightly with autumn’s arrival.
To a passing motorist, the fields on Donnie Tenney’s land look identical to the ubiquitous plots of late-season corn grown on roadside farms throughout West Virginia. But a closer look reveals something remarkably similar, yet more slender, taller, and without ears of corn. It’s sorghum cane, the raw matter responsible for one of Appalachia’s most storied pantry staples.
On a cool late-September afternoon, Tenney and his wife, Lorelei, stripped long, narrow leaves off the towering stalks by hand.
Neighbors, friends and relatives stopped by to help. At one point, nearly a dozen people were on site, some hidden deep in the cane thicket, detectable only by a steady, audible cadence of leaves being snapped and pulled, then tossed to the ground. There was plenty of jovial conversation, yet everyone was hard at work, playing a vital role in a process that’s long been a community-wide endeavor.
“I remember when I was a kid, this was the highlight of the fall,” said Tenney, a former Upshur County commissioner and retired horticulturist. “Everybody got together. People came in just like they do here.”
Piles of dark, green leaves quickly accumulated between rows. The barren stalks were cut at their bases, then carried to a tow-behind utility trailer. There, Tenney’s sister, Bonnie Kelley, and his mother-in-law, Liz Villegas, stacked them neatly in preparation for the last steps in making sorghum syrup, a viscous, dark amber substance with a strong history in Appalachian kitchens.
As a cook, I’m drawn to ingredients with depth and complexity. Sorghum syrup — commonly referred to as sorghum molasses — certainly has that going for it. Its taste can be described as mostly sweet, slightly bitter, with faint sour, smoky notes. Sorghum’s versatile flavor profile makes it fit for use in sweet and savory dishes alike. But sorghum’s complexity extends far beyond the interplay of tastes.
At one time, long after the first sorghum varieties were imported on slave ships from Africa, West Virginia sorghum operations were a dime a dozen. Sorghum syrup was a product born of necessity, when sugar was prohibitively expensive. As the cost of sugar fell and homesteading tradition bearers died, sorghum production largely fizzled out in the Mountain State.
I’ve often lamented that, despite the historical significance of the product in West Virginia, my own use has generally been limited to sorghum from Kentucky and Tennessee, where its use is more common, and production occurs on a far greater scale.
This all changed last spring, when I was tipped off about two farmers producing sorghum in Upshur County. I soon met Charlie Radabaugh, a retired factory worker who carries on his family’s hardscrabble traditions of producing vegetables, maple syrup and, of course, sorghum.
Our first encounter came at the Bridgeport Farmers Market, where, in the previous two weeks, Radabaugh had struck out trying to find customers who knew what sorghum was, much less who wanted to buy it. He was baffled to meet someone familiar with the contents of his pint-sized tan jugs, arranged neatly beside a modest display of early season vegetables.
We talked at length, as he shared photos of the boiling process and told me of the mill on Tenney’s farm. When he asked how I put sorghum to use, I described some of my favorite recipes: a glaze for charred venison, a dressing for a wilted greens salad, desserts galore.
“You just put sorghum on everything,” he joked. “But, you know, not many people here know what this stuff is.”
Radabaugh and Tenney are longtime close friends. During sorghum season, they’re also business partners. Each grows several plots of cane, all of which is processed through an antique cast-iron mill Tenney inherited from his father. Multiple growers, one central mill, all hands on deck. That’s how sorghum was typically produced in this region, and it’s no different in Tallmansville today.
“It seems like just about every community had somebody that had a mill,” Tenney said. “A lot of times, different people would plant it and bring it into one place, and they’d all work together.”
Just before evening, Radabaugh, who had been at Tenney’s farm since early morning, drove a bright red pickup truck hauling the trailer of stripped canes to the processing site. Beside a weathered garden shed, he unloaded them onto a long, narrow table, where Villegas sat, ready to lead the milling process traditionally known as squeezing.
When the John Deere tractor started, a cloth belt connected to its elevated back wheel set a series of gears and cogs into motion.
Villegas worked the canes horizontally, one-by-one from right to left across her lap, feeding them through a boxed-off iron contraption operating like the wringer of an antique washing machine. The mill’s vertical cylinders turned inward, crushing the cane before slowly spitting out the plants’ ribbon-like, fibrous remains onto a growing pile.
A bright green liquid trickled into a vat below the mill before being transferred to a heated evaporator under the shed’s awning, where late-arriving company gathered. As the slowly boiling syrup turned darker and thickened considerably, they told stories of nearby horse-drawn squeezings decades ago. Cookbooks with sorghum recipes were passed around. Images on smartphones showed early 20th-century newspaper ads for mills resembling the machine turning steadily just a few feet away.
The conversation was one about sorghum’s value, but not in terms of culinary use or monetary considerations. To those gathered at Tenney’s farm, sorghum represented more than a century’s worth of community history and heritage that will slip away once the mill stops running and the cane stops growing in the field behind the post office.
“We want to carry the tradition on to our kids and our grandkids, so they can understand what Appalachian heritage is all about,” Tenney said, Radabaugh nodding slowly in agreement.
The two expressed hope for a younger generation of chefs and farmers to pick up interest in sorghum. In doing so, they have delegated an important task to folks like me, not to pull leaves, cut stalks or feed the mill, but to help build interest and expand the community necessary to keep sorghum syrup flowing.
They have no plans to cease production anytime soon, but as mountain farmers familiar with the fragility of tradition, they’re eager to bring new producers and local helpers into the fold.
As for the future of the small operation in Tallmansville, Tenney said with a chuckle, “Well, my mother died when she was 100, so that means I have 32 years left to make sorghum.” Radabaugh responded, looking at Tenney with shrugged shoulders, raised eyebrows and a wide grin, “We’ll just keep on working until we’re too old to do it.”