By Zoe Nicholson and David Shields
Grain sorghum is an ancient food — indeed one of the staples of ancient Egypt. The lush seed heads of this tall-growing Asian and African grass were harvested and boiled like millet, or ground into flour (non-gluten) to make flatbreads and thicken soups and stews.
Grain sorghums — heat and drought resistant, lushly vegetative, and sugary in their sap — came to the West Indies and the American South in the Colonial era, as early as the 18th century, brought from Africa on the very vessels holding the enslaved.
In America it went by many names — Guinea Corn (because it came from West Africa), chicken corn (because the seeds were splendid feed for fowl), Tennessee rice, drooping sorghum, and broom corn. The leaves were stripped from the stalks and used as livestock fodder, the seeds for grain, and some used the stalks as a source for saccharine.
It wasn’t until the 1850s that 15 high sugarcane varieties from South Africa, imported to South Carolina by Lawrence Wray, made sorghum the source of a popular syrup.
Since the Civil War, southern sorghum has been thought of as a sweetener. But recently attention has shifted again to its earliest uses — as a kind of grain. Brewers and bakers have rediscovered grain sorghum because it does not activate celiac sensitivities. And Gullah farmers in South Carolina have started planting White African Sorghum, a variety that combines superb seed grain quality and high saccharine content.
In the South, Guinea corn was mainly known for its excellent use for livestock fodder, generally not seed for human consumption, except by the people who had traditionally eaten it: the impoverished and the enslaved.
Historically grain sorghum was handled differently depending on who prepared it. African Americans tended to make whole grain porridges from it, or parch it in a skillet, grind it into meal, wet it and form it into griddle cakes. An 1797 song from Jamaica published in the Columbian Magazine for May 1797 details the process:
Guinea corn, I long to see you
Guinea corn, I long to plant you
Guinea corn, I long to mould you
Guinea corn, I long to weed you,
Guinea corn, I long to hoe you
Guinea corn, I long to top you
Guinea corn, I long to cut you
Guinea corn, I long to dry you
Guinea corn, I long to beat you
Guinea corn, I long to thrash you
Guinea corn, I long to parch you
Guinea corn, I long to grind you
Guinea corn I long to turn you
Guinea corn, I long to eat you.
Anglo-American farmers and processors tended to mill unparched sorghum seed soaked in water (bolting it) into flour. The flour went to make flapjacks, bread, and crackers.
Periodically there were campaigns in the 1800s to promote sorghum flour as a substitute for other cereals and pseudo-cereals. An 1865 notice that was reprinted widely in American newspapers: “We have no doubt but that cakes made from sorghum flour are much more healthy and nutritious than those made from buckwheat.” It was “prepared like wheat flour by bolting.” (“Sorghum Flour,” Richmond Inquirer. October 3, 1864).
But using White African Sorghum as a grain was not unheard of. An editorial correspondence from 1823 recommends guinea corn “for table use in lieu of rice or small hominy” and also trumpets its value as feed for poultry and horses.
The writer urges “Mr. Skinner” to introduce the grain to his neighbors: “they are very prolific, and if not known in your neighborhood, will be a great acquisition to the kitchen garden.” (“Guinea Corn—Beans&c.” The American Farmer. May 2, 1823. 5)
The history of sweet sorghum may be more familiar. After the Fall of Vicksburg in 1863, Louisiana cane sugar production was halted, rendering sugar scarce. Sorghum provided relief to both Union and Confederacy households during the war, when many resources were scarce. It became the most popular alternative ingredient to cane sugar.
During the cane sugar shortage of the Civil War, sorghum presented itself as a cheap, durable, and versatile alternative to both sides of the fight.
From 1862 to 1865, “the strange creaking of hum of the cane-mills pervaded the land” (David Dodge. “Domestic Economy in in the Confederacy” The Atlantic Monthly 58. 1886. 235). What had been used as fodder and cereal across the world, was used as a sweetener in war-torn America.
The use of sorghum as a sweetener “was best known and cheapest in Confederate times,” making it almost ubiquitous in the wartime American diet (Mrs. M. P. Handy, “Confederate Coffee” Ouachita Telegraph. Monroe, LA. Dec. 7,1877).
While the use of sorghum was pervasive throughout the nation, the varieties used in the North and South were quite different. In 1853, William Prince imported “Chinese Sugar Cane” from France and distributed it among Northern planters. Around the same time, Leonard Wray, an experimental agriculturalist doing research in South Africa, shipped Imphee grass, a type of sorghum, to Governor Hammond of South Carolina, thus introducing the grain to southern planters. Four years after its introduction, merely 20,000 acres from Minnesota to Georgia were planted, but by 1862, it was a staple across the south, north, and Midwest.
The Chinese sugarcane’s ability to tolerate cold weather meant it could be grown farther north than cane sugar and did not require labor-intensive tending, making it a more politically and morally appealing option for northern farmers than the backbreaking cane sugar, which could not be grown without slave labor and a warm climate.
Sorghum as a sweetener still proved popular post-war. From 1870 to 1920, the sorghum jug sat next to the biscuit basket on many southern and Midwestern tables. Its mellow and malty taste, along with its comparatively low-labor input and manageable growing season ensured sorghum’s longevity in the American diet when products like rye coffee faded into the background once typical ingredients became available again.
Of the dozens of sorghum varieties brought over by Wray and Prince in the 1850s, only one is still available: White African Sorghum. Originally imported as Enyama Imphee, the sorghum variety was one of 15 strains experimented with during the 19th Century. When beet sugar production boomed in the 1880s, however, many of these strains were abandoned, eventually leaving White African as the sole surviving Imphee variety. The tall, leafy stalk slightly resembles a corn stalk. Standing at an average of ten-feet tall, the white seeds (of which the grain earns its name) are enclosed within a black glume. A coating ensures high rates of water retention, ensuring the White African’s ability to grow in harsh climates. Currently, White African seeds are available to purchase from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Sorghum is the “fifth most important cereal crop in the world.” Its durability and versatility ensures the grower food security.
Dr. Steven Kresovich, the Coker Chair of Genetics at Clemson University and Member of the Board of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, stands at the forefront of selecting and breeding varieties of sorghum suited to the particular needs of brewers, distillers, the livestock industry, biofuel producers, and the baking industry.
At a time when the thirstiness and lack of heat tolerance stress corn and make it an unattractive option in parts of the country suffering water shortages, sorghum has become an economical alternative. Qualities of resilience, drought tolerance, and foliage generation are among the traits that are strengthened in new strains of sorghum being bred in South Carolina.
For those seeking the traditional taste of guinea corn porridge or griddle cakes, White African Sorghum is the first choice. If traditional syrup is one’s desire, White African has rivals — Amber (an old variety) and Honey/Sugar Drip.
In January 2018, a shipment of White African sorghum was sent to Gullah farmers along the East Coast. What was once only fodder and provisions may finally make its way into the American diet as a respected staple along rice or hominy — a meal 300 years in the making.