LINEFORK, Ky. —Before the sun rises over Linefork, the steam is rising off the syrup at the Whitaker homestead. Quietly, men work in harmony to stir and skim the green murky goop that rises to the surface of the liquid.
This fall, as in the 100 years before, the sorghum crop has been harvested from the field below; the 60 gallons of extracted green cane juice are slowly being boiled down to six gallons of thick, dark molasses.
This story is about a molasses stir-off, but it is also about a family. The Whitakers are a well-educated family who have chosen to thrive on the 140 acres of mountain land their great-grandfather bought in 1900 for $250. They might be the truest form of preservationists, historians and conservationists that Kentucky has.
Devenee "Granny" Whitaker, who raised three boys with her husband in these mountains and still lives here, spends the better part of the stir-off seated near the covered shelter where the sorghum boils, greeting all who come to join in the event.
Gravy, biscuits, eggs, coffee and sweets await those who arrive early, and there are small pockets of quiet conversation throughout the yard. But the main focus, without a doubt, is the sorghum.
People drift over to the covered shelter every so often to check on the slow, steady progress, while a select group of men stay at their posts the entire day. Jesse, Willie, Laramey and Wayne are the day's molasses makers. Jesse's teenage son stays close by, serving a stir-off apprenticeship.
Wayne Whitaker, the oldest of Granny's three sons, is the point person for the day and divides his time between inspecting the progress of the syrup and smoking the venison, pork and beef on the nearby grill for the afternoon meal.
Wayne is a passionate Appalachian historian and preservationist. He lives on this land with his wife, Sue, and they offer their knowledge, experience and time in the mountain communities to teach the rich traditions to younger generations.
As the day progresses, more friends, neighbors, strangers and family arrive, food in hand. Sue Whitaker overseas the hospitality for the day, and she swiftly organizes tables of food, works on making a big batch of dumplings in the large cast-iron kettle, and finds time to cuddle with her grandkids, who are just beginning to get acquainted with a century-old family tradition.
As the syrup thickens and darkens and the hours wear on, the activity under the shelter gradually escalates. The movement never stops as the men take turns stirring, skimming and wiping down the sides of the metal basin with a wet cloth. Outside the shelter, people sense the energy and begin congregating, breaking off pieces of sorghum cane, dipping it in the thickening syrup and tasting what this year's crop has produced. This happens more and more frequently as the molasses thickens; soon everyone is standing nearby, cane in hand, tasting and savoring its sweetness. Women reminisce about their own childhood memories of stir-offs and the recipes their mothers made using molasses: stack cakes, fritters and gingerbread.
When the sorghum finally reaches a stage when the green goop is gone and a golden foam appears, Wayne emerges with a candy thermometer. He sits in a chair at the end of the long basin, dips the thermometer, reads it and re-dips it over and over again until it reaches 240 degrees. Wayne knows the end product is as much about temperature as it is about taste and consistency. And for this, he relies on his mother's expertise. Throughout this finishing process, he continually sends samples of molasses over to Granny on both a stick of cane for taste and drops on the back of a porcelain plate for her to inspect.
When the final OK is given by Granny and Wayne, the fire is shut off under the basin and the homestead is immediately calm. Music, which was previously drowned out, can now be heard as a visitor named Tex softly plays guitar and sings the old hymn I've Never Been This Homesick Before. A woman making dumplings quietly joins in, and before long, several are softly singing:
"There's a light in the window, and the table's set in splendor. Someone's standing by the open door, I can see a crystal river. Oh I must be near forever and I've never been this homesick before."
Clean mason jars are brought to Wayne, and everyone huddles around to watch as he slowly opens the spout and the dark amber syrup flows into the jar. One by one the jars are filled, capped and sealed.
In celebration, a large potluck meal begins. There are heaping plates of dumplings, mashed potatoes, greens, smoked meats, sweet apple bread, puddings and pies. The celebratory meal is a fitting tribute to the end of another growing season and bountiful harvest.
Before the sun sets, Waylan Whitaker, the middle of Granny's three sons who also lives on the land, leads a short hike. Just steps away from the bustling activity, the hikers step into an enchanted forest of waterfalls, streams, trees, moss-covered boulders and beauty. Waylan is passionate about trees, and there is no wondering why. The family land, which backs up to the famed Lilley Cornett Woods, has streams of water clean enough to drink from and the most breathtaking forest landscape imaginable. He climbs a steep slope to one of the prizes of the land — the tallest hemlock tree in the state and possibly the nation. This hasn't happened by chance. The Whitaker family has put a lifetime of labor, love and money into preserving the land and trees. Waylan proudly says that these 140 acres have never been mined, lumbered or drilled, a testimony to the devotion of this family.
The sun goes down, and people pack up for home. Jars of sorghum molasses get tucked under arms, a sweet memory of the day.
For the Whitakers, another huge pile of harvested sorghum cane awaits. There will be more molasses made this season, and without a doubt, many autumn seasons to come.
Alena Watts has lived in Appalachia her entire life. While the molasses boiled down at the stir-off, she talked recipes. When asked how she most loved to eat molasses, she offered this recipe. She said her mom would make molasses "flitters" over the old stove for her and her siblings, and they would often eat them for dinner.
Alena's molasses flitters
2 cups self-rising flour
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter, melted
2 large eggs
Heat ¼ cup vegetable oil in a cast-iron skillet. Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl. Use a large spoon or ice cream scoop to place large rounds of batter in the skillet. Brown the flitters on both sides, carefully flipping them in the hot oil. When golden on both sides, remove to a paper towel-lined plate.
1 cup of sorghum molasses
1 teaspoon baking soda
Boil molasses in a cast-iron skillet. Add baking soda and whisk while it foams.
To serve, place a couple of flitters on a plate. Top with butter and drizzle with the molasses foam.
26 ounces all purpose flour
8 ounces lard or unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
2 tablespoons baking soda
12 ounces molasses
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
4 ounces buttermilk
4 ounces unsalted butter, melted
5 cups apple butter, homemade or store bought
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line three 8-inch cake pans with parchment paper and grease lightly. (Or, more traditionally, use a lightly greased cast-iron skillet.)
Sift the flour and set aside.
Cream the lard or butter together with the brown sugar, ground and fresh ginger, and baking soda. Mix in the molasses, eggs, vanilla and buttermilk. Stir in the flour.
Bake 12 ounces of batter in an 8-inch cake pan, about 10 minutes a layer, or until the cakes spring back when touched.
Split each layer in two with a serrated knife. Brush each layer lightly with melted butter and a generous 1/2 cup of apple butter. Stack the layers and serve immediately.
From Stella Parks, pastry chef at Table Three Ten, 310 West Short Street, Lexington.
Megan Smith is a wife, mother to three boys, an entrepreneur, a writer and an occasional crafter. Her blog is at Hiphome.blogspot.com