Sorghum’s tang and lore savored in Ronni Lundy’s latest book
Long cherished in the South, sorghum has recently been rediscovered by progressive chefs across the nation. It is prized for its distinct umami taste that can enhance and deepen the flavors of both sweet and savory dishes. Published this week, Sorghum’s Savor showcases the history and endless culinary possibilities of this unique ingredient.
“In a world of rapid loss of rural food staples, Sorghum’s Savor implores us to pay attention.”—Hugh Acheson, author of A New Turn in the South
“Lundy gives sorghum its long delayed due in this smart and lyrical book.”—John T. Edge, coeditor of The Larder
“One of the most lucid and lovely voices in all of southern food writing.”—Damon Lee Fowler, author of Essentials of Southern Cooking
An ancient Old World grass that resembles corn, sorghum is cultivated and used as a grain in most of the world. Yet the cane varieties were cultivated, processed and used as syrup only in North America, particularly in the South. It has been a key ingredient in Southern baked goods, confections, glazes, and dressings since before the Civil War.
Though essential to the region, sorghum’s complex flavors and deep heritage have often gone unsung. Alongside favorite hill country recipes like Kentucky Cakes and Gravy Horse, the book features innovative modern recipes such as Chef Dustin Staggers’s Monkey Wrench Skillet Fried Chicken and Chef John Fleer’s Long Sweetening Sorbet.
A seasoned writer, speaker, and founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance, author Ronni Lundy is widely considered one of the few experts on southern Appalachian foods. We asked her a few questions about her connection to sorghum, her Kentucky background, and her many years invested in the mountain foodways community. Please sit in and enjoy our Q&A with Ronni Lundy!
“The foodways of the Appalachian South are indicative not only of the human race’s earliest experiences in North America, through its still existing Native American influences, but they also tell the story of settling the frontier and of the industrialization of the country.”
How would you describe the taste of sorghum?
Sorghum syrup is both sweet and buttery with what my momma would have called “a whang to it.” There is a sharp tang in its taste, and then an undercurrent of mineral with just barely the least whisper or bitter in the background for shadowing. It’s the most complex sweetener, more rounded tasting than honey, cane or maple syrup, not medicinal and abrasive like molasses. It has a quality of umami that other syrups lack.
When were you first introduced to sorghum?
My first memory is tasting it mixed with butter on a biscuit as a toddler at the family table in Corbin, Kentucky.
What’s one thing readers might be surprised to learn about sorghum?
It’s not really molasses. It’s often called that, or sorghum molasses, but molasses is actually a by-product of the sugar making process—the liquid run-off when crystallized sugar is produced. Sorghum syrup is purely the juice from sweet sorghum cane that is carefully rendered to a pourable consistency and resonant taste. Nothing else.
Why do you think sorghum is becoming a popular ingredient in progressive cuisine?
Its umami quality gives sorghum more range than other, less complicated sweeteners. It adds a buttery richness, a slight mineral tang that allows it to be used in savory foods across a broad range of cuisines. It’s an impeccable harmonizer. I like to call it “the Emmylou Harris of sweeteners.”
You’ve received a lifetime achievement award from the Southern Foodways Alliance for your previous cookbooks, food journalism, and involvement in the Appalachian foodways community. Why do you think it’s important to write and learn about Southern mountain food?
Well, let’s see. It’s the best tasting food in the country, for one. And the foodways of the Appalachian South are indicative not only of the human race’s earliest experiences in North America, through its still existing Native American influences, but they also tell the story of settling the frontier and of the industrialization of the country. The region’s elevation, topography and climate have dictated that farming be kept relatively small and sustainable, so there is much to be learned from the living traditions of the region. And those elements plus the never-abandoned tradition of seed saving through generations mean that the Appalachian South is the most bio-diverse foodshed in North America. Foodways are also the perfect tool for understanding that this is a culture of innovation, intelligence, diligence, hard work and, most of all, of deep-rooted community.
Before you started writing about food, you were a longtime music critic for the Louisville Courier-Journal. How does your work in music journalism influence your food writing?
I used to say that I used up all of my food analogies writing about music, so I had to switch to using music analogies when writing about food. Both music and cooking are performance arts that interact intimately and immediately with their audiences. There’s a conversation in each, and I like listening to and participating in it. I gravitated to writing about music that was deeply embedded in specific cultures or came from distinct regions—bluegrass, zydeco, Nigerian pop, East L.A. rock and roll. That allowed me a window into the soul of a people. Food is about both body and soul.
What is your favorite cooking memory?
Impossible to answer, there are so many. But I will tell you that all the memories that matter involve cooking with or for someone I love.
What chefs or farmers do you admire, and how have they influenced your own work?
Bill Best, the Kentucky seed saver and existential philosopher is my guru. He’s originally from western North Carolina, and his deep understanding of place and the culture/community he comes from and is in inform everything he does. I reach for that in my own work. I have been blessed with an abundance of great chefs who are not only brilliant at what they do in the kitchen, but have enormous hearts. I could not begin to name them all. And I will say that any farmer who is trying to keep the land alive, to sustain a family, to feed the rest of us earns my deepest respect and awe.
What project are you working on next?
I’m a member of the Appalachian Food Summit, a just-beginning group of growers, chefs, scholars, writers, producers and eager eaters who are looking for ways to create sustainable food economies and to truthfully record and spread the food-related stories and voices of the region.
* * * * *