The syrup of the Mid-South sweetens breakfasts in Westgate by Ari Weinzweig
The other day, near the end of Sunday brunch at the Roadhouse, this older, but not at all old, gentlemen politely flagged me down. I know him a bit, but not well. He strikes me as smart, someone who’s well-traveled, well-read, and knows how to eat. He looked me in the eye and asked me with an edge in his voice, “How the heck can you have sorghum on the menu here?” His question was asked with fake severity, but the underlying message was “How am I supposed to watch what I’m eating if you put something as good as sorghum syrup on the menu? And, really, what are you all—who by all rights ought know nothing about it—doing with sorghum syrup here in southeastern Michigan, anyways?”
His question made me smile. “That’s what we do!” I said. And, that’s true. Sorghum syrup is the kind of stuff that, to me, helps to make Zingerman’s Zingerman’s. Something super-delicious, well known in its “heartland”—folks like this gentleman know it well, it tastes terrific, but it’s barely known at all here in Ann Arbor. Our job is to find it, study it, source it, get it here, and convince a bunch of folks who (unlike my Sunday brunch buddy) have never heard of it that it’s worth eating. Then, we stick with the process long enough that, like with pimento cheese, folks can’t figure out how they ever lived without it.
The sorghum plant is native to Africa and grown most places for its grain. For syrup making, the stalks are stripped of their leaves, and the stalks go through a mill to make the juice. It takes about three to four hours of boiling to get the juice cooked down—about 20 gallons of juice is reduced to two gallons of syrup. It’s primarily a crop of the upper South. Kentucky and Tennessee make the most, and its eaten a lot in North Carolina and Missouri as well.
At the Roadhouse, the sorghum comes from the great folks at Muddy Pond, about halfway between Nashville and Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s a tiny production, but their syrup is terrific. Watch this great Southern Foodways Alliance film to learn more about their work. (Thank you all who just supported Camp Bacon so that more films like this can be made.)
Probably the most popular way to eat sorghum syrup in the middle South is to put it on biscuits. Former Governor of Georgia Zell Miller, who grew up on sorghum, says in Joe Dabney’s superb book Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread and Scuppernong Wine, that you start by putting butter on a warm plate and pouring on the syrup, then you mix with a fork til the mixture looks a lot like cake batter. Now, spoon the mixture onto biscuits. John Freer, a customer who comes to visit from Kentucky said, “There is nothing better than big biscuits and lots of butter and LOTS of sorghum.” I’m inclined to agree.
I’m betting that sorghum syrup might just make you smile, too. The odds are that, if you’re from around the Mid-South, you may not—yet—know what it is. But the odds are also that if you like good food, have an interest in sweet things and complex, compelling flavors, sorghum is going to strike your fancy, too. I know the Roadhouse menu is big, but if you have room in your day to try some of this small, but sweetly delicious, footnote of Southern eating, sorghum syrup could just make your day.