Sweet Sorghum Tradition: Ricky McGinnis picks up where his grandfather left off, producing the syrup of the South
Written by Andrea Gable, Photographed by Holly Brown and Josiah Connelly
In 1900, Ricky McGinnis’ grandfather, Grady, started making sweet sorghum syrup. He was ten years old at the time, plenty big enough to help his father supply quarts of the Southern nectar to farmers in Forsyth County and the surrounding hills of North Georgia who brought them their cane. In the hey day of the 30s and 40s, they processed 4,000 gallons a year and sold them for 50 to 75 cents a gallon.
This “poor man’s sugar” was especially popular during the Great Depression, though it had been on the rural scene since the 1800s. Much cheaper than sugar, this product of Southern ingenuity that spilled out of Appalachia was plentiful, had a long shelf life, and sweetened just the same. Sorghum grass, an African grass and cousin to sugar cane, thrived in Southern climes. Processing it was fairly easy, though no less arduous. All you needed was a mule and a sturdy mill. Grady McGinnis and his father had two. After his father died, Grady upgraded to a fancy, new, modern cane crusher that could be powered by a tractor. By then, his was the only mill in the county.
In 1972, the mill went dormant. Ricky McGinnis, Grady’s grandson, had just graduated from Morgan County High School and was in his first year at the University of Georgia – completely unaffected by the ceasing of a piece of his heritage. He had never really taken to it anyway. Sure, he loved the taste of sweet sorghum syrup – he is a Southerner after all – but helping his grandfather during visits to his farm never really sparked his interest. “I can remember being around his farm as a kid and later a teenager in the 60s and just thinking how hot it was,” says McGinnis. “There were lots of yellow jackets all over the place and everything was sticky. It was sticky all over.”
But something changed over the years for McGinnis, who now has grandsons of his own, and he began toying with the idea of picking up where his grandfather left off. “Back then I didn’t care, but then as we mature and start thinking about heritage and lineage and legacies, I decided that I did, in fact, want to do this,” he says.
Today, his grandfather’s mill has a new home in Morgan County.
McGinnis planted his first sorghum seeds three years ago in a little half-acre patch of land in Bostwick, just outside of Madison. Though a crop of sorghum grass could be easily mistaken for rows of corn, most folks in the little farming town of Bostwick knew exactly what it was. In fact, some told McGinnis about a man who would show up each year in his wagon, pulling a portable operation that he set up in a pasture for a few days to cook people’s syrup.
McGinnis thought of that man the first year he set up his jars of syrup to sell at the Cotton Gin Festival, Bostwick’s annual event held each fall. His sorghum patch had yielded him around 60 gallons of product, making his family’s previous numbers unfathomable. “To do the amount of syrup they did is mind boggling,” he says.
Harvest time was just as labor intensive as McGinnis remembered. Sorghum grass might look like corn, but it is harvested quite differently. Instead of ears coming from the sides of the ten- to twelve-foot stalks, sorhum has seed heads coming out of the top. McGinnis explains the first things you have to do is strip all of the leaves off the stalk, cut the seed head off, then cut the stalk at the ground. “It’s an enormous amount of work,” he says. Fortunately, he has family and friends in Bostwick who don’t mind getting their hands dirty.
They’ll have a break this year, however. The hot summer with little rain has wiped out his crop, he says, but McGinnis is seizing the break in hard labor to move his newfound hobby forward. Now that he is in possession of his grandfather’s mill and no longer has to bring his stalks to North Georgia for processing, he wants to become a self-contained operation by gathering the equipment needed for the final process – cooking the syrup.
Old-fashioned sorghum syrup is cooked in a long, rectangular “evaporation pans,” and McGinnis plans to have one of his own soon. The entire production, from the harvest to the quart jar, is a precise science. Once the stalks are pressed through the rollers of the mill, the juice is collected and boiled. The chlorophyll that rises to the top is skimmed off before the liquid makes it into the pan that is heated from below, much like a barbecue pit. This is where the precision comes in – temperature and consistency determines the outcome. McGinnis depends on thermometers. His grandfather just watched the bubbles.
If successful, the batch makes it into a jar labeled Madison Sorghum Syrup. Another label goes on the back – McGinnis’ own idea for a “back story” – even though his wife, Carol, gives him grief about it. “It’s just a little bit corny,” he admits, “but I call it ‘the sorghum Sherman couldn’t refuse.’” The back story, he explains, is that the reason Sherman spared Madison on his March to the Sea was because Senator Joshua Hill’s wife met him on the road with a pan of biscuits covered in Madison Sorghum Syrup. “I’ve had a lot of people chuckle over it,” says McGinnis.
Biscuits seem to be the preferred vehicle for sorghum consumption in the South. “There’s a serving process,” says McGinnis, “and anybody who has ever had sorghum syrup will recognize it. What you do is infuse the syrup with butter.” Starting out with a saucer, he explains, put a pat of butter in the center and cover it with syrup. Using a fork, then press it and mix it, press it and mix it, over and over. “It’ll make something similar to an emulsion,” he says. “When you have your butter already in your syrup and then you approach it with a biscuit, it’s better than life itself.”
A close second would be baked sweet potatoes topped with sorghum instead of brown sugar, or baked beans, or gingerbread cookies – he has a hard time deciding.
Sorghum is a different kind of flavor for people who didn’t grow up drizzling it on biscuits. Some say it’s bitter, but McGinnis looks for better ways to describe it. “It’s kind of like beer,” he says. “When you drink your first beer, you think ‘Why do people drink this stuff?’ But it’s a bit of an acquired taste. It gives you an altogether different avenue of flavor and it gets to be very recognizable.” Essentially, you either you like it or you don’t.
In fact, McGinnis says his own two daughters don’t really care for the taste. But there is hope – his daughters have two sons of their own, and based on McGinnis family history, things might just skip a generation.
McGinnis knows from experience that he can’t force a love of sorghum on his young grandsons and predicts they will likely complain about how hot and sticky things are when they visit him and his sorghum mill. “But one day, when they’re old codgers and thinking about retirement and what they can do as a special interest, they will have this exposure. I’d like to at least instill in them that this is something their great grandfathers did,” he says.
Perhaps one day, this third-generational syrup maker will make way for fifth-generational syrup makers who decide to carry on the sweet sorghum tradition, just like their grandfather.
“When you have your butter already in your syrup and then you approach it with a biscuit, it’s better than life itself.” – Ricky McGinnis, third-generation syrup maker