Sweet tradition: Family passes rural tradition of sorghum cooking down to the next generation

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By Molly Haines

On a farm just outside Wheatley an old-time smell wafted across the fields owned by Steve Malcomb. Friends and family gathered around a wood-fire furnace to take part in what was once a typical scene across Kentucky.
Though the production of sweet sorghum is a fading memory for many, Malcomb, a fourth-generation sorghum cooker said he’s proud to pass a piece of his history onto his own son.
“It’s just a hobby,” Malcomb said. “But my great-grandfather did it in the 1800s and it’s just part of the family heritage. My son’s 12, now’s a good time to pass it on.”
Malcomb planted a small crop of sorghum cane in mid-May and began cutting the seed heads off several weeks ago, a process that he compared to topping tobacco.
The leaves of the sorghum cane were then stripped off before the cane was run through a mill to squeeze out the juice.
“That’s a newer piece of equipment,” Malcomb said, pointing at the mill. “It’s a 1947 sugarcane mill and really that is pretty new for something like that.”
Once the cain is run through the mill, the juice runs into a catch bin and is later placed into a large pan over the wood-fire furnace.
On Sept. 24, Steve, his father Harold Malcomb and Larry Vanarsdall stood around the wood-fire furnace with strainers to remove the “skimmings” from the juice’s surface.
“It’ll cook about all afternoon,” Steve said. “You have to keep the fire down low -- it’s a slow process and if you try to speed it up you’ll burn it.”
A steady stream of Steve’s family and neighbors walked back and forth from where the sorghum was cooking to a building nearby where a meal was served.
“This is the first time we’ve cooked any (sorghum) in 10 years,” Steve said. “The last time before that was in the early ‘90s. We try to do it every decade or so.”
Steve, along with his wife Carrie, have two adopted children – Noah and Ann Marie.
“They think it’s pretty neat,” Steve said. “They’re a blessing, that’s for sure.”
When the sorghum was finished cooking, Steve said there would be plenty of biscuits around “just in case any was spilled.”