As I write this from our farm at the edge of the Delta, I look through a window and see the spot that was the site of the old sorghum mill. It was between two huge Oaks, both dead, in an area we call “The Grove.” There are still a few pieces of the mill scattered around and it recently provided the subject of a pleasant afternoon.
It came up while we were entertaining guests from Cincinnati, Ohio at our condominium in downtown Little Rock. We, of course, had my mother-in-law Hazel with us and we were all taking an extended “happy hour” break from a day filled with museums, food, and walking. Somehow the conversation turned to how a widower on an isolated farm supported himself and five children in the midst of the Great Depression.
He did it, we were told, partly by making sorghum molasses, right here in the grove. If I squint, I can stare past the modern vehicles, tractors, and implements and imagine I still see the old mule circling the press, hear the sounds of the sorghum being fed into it, and smell the sweet scent of the syrup as it flowed into the waiting jars. It must have presented quite a site as the liquid passed from one copper pan to another finally to reach its purest form.
Hazel explained the process in great detail. She is superb at remembering the old days. It’s the new ones that can confound her a bit. She had us all, I suspect, thinking about a large plate full of fried eggs and ham with a fresh biscuit soaked in the simple pleasure of sorghum molasses.
It must have been a hard life back then and one can’t help being glad for this breakfast treat that might have brightened the existence.
The way it worked, she told us, was that her daddy owned and ran the mill. Neighbors would bring the sorghum—a stalk resembling a small sugar cane—to be processed. They would feed the stalks into a press moved by a long pole hooked to a mule. After boiling, the results were transferred to the copper trays and processed.
After sealing the final product in jars, they would share the output. Hazel’s dad would receive a fourth that he could then sell. The rest belonged to the farmer who provided the cane. The entire countryside would enjoy the fruits of their efforts on winter days when cold winds from Texas howled unhindered through the barren fields.
Sometimes, they would give the kids each a stalk of sorghum as candy. It was pretty tasty when chewed, as I remember. Later in life, the women of an Asian village would sell us a section of sugar cane as a delicacy. Sometimes it would ease the pain of being where I was take me back to afternoons of sitting on the porch of my father’s grocery store chewing on a partial stalk of sorghum.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how things as simple as sorghum and sorghum molasses can bind us to a remembrance of things past? Funny and blessed.
"The past isn't dead. It's not even past." – William Faulkner