It goes without saying that the isolated Cumberland Plateau has been populated by self-reliant and resourceful people. The combined effect of few cash resources and limited transportation required they live on what the land could produce. And I guess mountain-folk like sweets the same as anybody else but sugar cane just wasn’t going to grow in our short summers and thin soil. Honey is always a good sweetener and beekeeping has been popular for generations. But sorghum molasses have always been a staple as well.
I decided to share a few thoughts on this subject after talking with a reader from Michigan who said she’d heard about sorghum but didn’t quite know what it was.
Now we always just call this molasses, however, today’s technical description of molasses is “a viscous by-product of refining sugarcane.” That by-product tag may be why blackstrap molasses are so often used in animal feed. So “Sorghum Molasses” tends to differentiate the source.
Well like I said, sugar cane requires more of a tropical climate than the mountain can offer. Of course sugar beets grow in the colder mid-west climate but other than a few hunters hoping to bait deer I’ve never known of anyone on the Plateau growing sugar beets. However sorghum cane is as old as the hills – or at least as old as the settlements in these hills.
According to a Purdue (https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/forage.html) site, the plant is indigenous to Africa and was first introduced to the United States in the early 1600’s. However, it wasn’t extensively grown until the mid-1800’s. I wonder what “extensively” means there? I’d hate to argue with the scholars at a respected university, but I’m thinking the Scots Irish that trekked into the mountains in the 1700’s brought this crop with them. That seems logical if only because the crop and the tradition of making molasses was so entrenched among a people who lived in veritable isolation for over a century. Now the question of where those immigrants got it is another question entirely.
See, the British had been trading with the West Indies from the early 1600’s. They immediately enjoyed all of the wonderful products from those exotic lands. Even then, however, refined sugar was a luxury for the wealthy, as was the case when sugar was imported to the American colonies as well. Early sugar production was extremely labor intensive and therefore the finished product was very expensive. But that’s where research of products in the mountains kind of breaks down.
With established trade routes from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, sugar became much more widely available in Europe and I imagine in the oldest of American colonies as well. The Appalachian peoples were much more isolated and they were not often included in those trade routes. Even if the products were available, we’ve already established they had very limited cash resources therefore the average thirty-six pounds of sugar consumed by every European in 1850 would have simply been impossible to buy.
I can hardly imagine the reception of a crop that could be grown and refined right at home into a sweetener for cookies and cakes or cooked down into candy. With the shifting economy following World War II, that generation that grew up in the mountains in the 1920’s and 1930’s may have quickly grown tired of the molasses goodies. But just a generation before taste buds weren’t nearly so choosy and that is no doubt why our tradition of making molasses held on for us to enjoy them today.
Many memories and stories from the pre-war years remain and maybe you can share some of your own. A stir-off was a community event that attracted quite a crowd. The cane would be crushed and the pommies piled high. By day’s end when the cooking was well underway young folks always enjoyed chewing this ground cane for the last bit of sweetness it held.
Molasses-making takes a long time, especially on the smallpans most communities had. And I say community because there were only one or two cane mills and pans around and folks came from the whole area with their cane on wagons to cook down the molasses. The owners of those mills and pans were happy to help their neighbors in exchange for a share of the molasses.
Can you even imagine the festive atmosphere as the long awaited harvest is finished and the sweet product of your labor can be enjoyed?