My grandma Frances Olson has been working her way around a kitchen for the better part of her 95 years. She’s the kind of rock-star grandma known for her pie crusts and quilting, weekly bulletin folding “down at the church” and extreme practicality. I am known for none of these things, but I think that, if hang around her long enough, I’ll at least learn how to boil water properly or make a bed with “hospital corners.”
I’ve long had interest in family history and done a lot of story collection with family members on this subject; however, it came as a surprise to me when Grandma Olson explained that her family grew sorghum when she was young – a plant of which I was completely unfamiliar. Corn, I understand; wheat, I understand; but what was sorghum? I did some digging:
According to SorghumCheckOff, the provenance of sorghum dates back to 8000 B.C. near the Egyptian-Sudanese border in Northeastern Africa. From Africa, it spread to India, China, Australia and eventually to the United States, where it was first referenced by Ben Franklin in 1757.
Three main sorghum varieties include grain sorghum, forage sorghum and sweet sorghum. Grain sorghum is a very popular crop grown with numerous varietals for food, while forage sorghum is mainly used for livestock silage.
Grandma Olson’s family grew sweet sorghum, a variety pressed for its stalks’ juice and processed into syrup. The syrup was used as a sweetener and was especially popular when sugar prices were high during the Civil War, the Great Depression and in times of drought because the crop is particularly drought tolerant.
A labor-intensive process, competitive sugar prices and relatively small yield rates (100 gallons of juice to 1 gallon of syrup compared to sugar maple’s 40 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup) have led to a decline in its popularity. However, a small number of farmers continue the tradition of making it possible for Grandma Olson and my generation to taste a bit of the past, and perhaps to imagine new recipes and uses for it in years to come.
Frances Olson uses her mother Ester Danielson’s recipe to make these sweet treats.
Yield: Approximately 4 Dozen
1 ½ cups lard
2 cups white sugar (additional sugar for sprinkling cookies)
½ tsp salt
2 tsp ground ginger
4 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
½ cup sorghum
2 eggs slightly beaten
4 ½ cups flour (additional flour for rolling out cookies)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large bowl, cream together lard (or shortening and butter mixture) and sugar until light and fluffy. Add remainder of ingredients in order given and mix until thoroughly combined.
Chill dough for 30 minutes to an hour.
Generously flour a pastry cloth on top of a rolling surface. Generously flour rolling pin sleeve and roll out ¼ of dough on floured surface to ¼ inch thickness. Cut out dough with circular cookie cutter.
Place cookies on a baking sheet one inch apart and sprinkle with white sugar. Bake for 12- 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
Remove cookies from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Tips from Granny Franny
Frances substitutes 1 cup of shortening and ½ cup butter for the lard (while debatable, this substitution may not make the recipe more healthy – it’s just that shortening and butter may be more readily available in your pantry/refrigerator).
Frances keeps a separate countertop board for rolling out pie crusts and cookies. If you also use a separate surface, she recommends sewing elastic on the ends of your pastry cloth so you can slip the pastry cloth around the board, securing it from moving while you roll out all four dozen of these sweets.
Don’t have a rolling pin sleeve? Frances recommends cutting the foot off an old, clean, calf-high sock, slipping the ankle section on the pin. Flour sticks to the grooves of the sleeve/stocking top, which discourages the dough from sticking to the rolling pin.
No wire rack for cooling? No problem. Frances cools her cookies on paper towels or cut up brown paper sacks laying flat.
Where can you find sorghum syrup?
Frances suggests calling ahead to your local co-op or grocer to learn if they carry sorghum syrup. I found sorghum syrup at The Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis, MN.