Monday, November 5, 2012

Wall-eyed in Michigan

I achieved one of my life goals this weekend—seeing Sandhill's name on Zingerman's map of suppliers for their Roadhouse Restaurant

[This is also my first foray into posting images as part of my blog, and I can't think of a more noteworthy achievement to offer up as my inaugural graphic.]

This is a big deal as the folks at Zingerman's are fanatics about quality and this stamp of approval is a Côte d'Or sobriquet that money can't buy—you have to earn it. As sorghum is Sandhill's signature organic food product, it's incredibly satisfying to gain this coveted recognition. 

As sorghum makers we've been learning our craft since 1977. Over the years we've reinvented our cooking process twice, until finally hitting on what we're satisfied is a terrific process.

In the Beginning…
We started with a two pan batch system cooked over a direct wood fire. We had the pans custom made from stainless steel, with the first pan twice the size of the second and placed higher, so that the juice could flow easily into the smaller pan when the first batch was half cooked. In this method one batch of juice was cooked from start to finish all together. This represented a doubling of output from the single pan method that we first learned by apprenticing with neighbors.

When we hit out stride during the sorghum harvest, we'd cook 36 hours straight out of 48, meaning that one or two people would have to take cooking shifts through the night. It was exhausting.

If at First You Don't Succeed…
Not satisfied with the pace or control of the batch method, we switched to a Stubbs single pan continuous flow process. The pan was divided into two parts, connected at one end—like a giant U. We'd dribble raw juice in one end of the U, have it slowly progress along 16 feet, turn the corner, and then travel 16 feet back the other way, separated by the partition. By the time it had completed it's 32-foot journey (it took about three hours) the sorghum would be done and we'd drain it off. This doubled our productivity, but we were still cooking over a direct wood fire and things would occasionally get hairy when too much sorghum finished all at once. If you had a strong fire, the difference between perfect sorghum and something overcooked beyond salability was about 90 seconds. Under those conditions, we didn't have a lot of people volunteering to be in charge of cooking.

While we no longer needed to cook through the night with this system (hurray!), we'd typically start before dawn and would often cook well into the evening, making for looong days.

Third Time's the Charm…
Finally, in 2006, we switched to using live steam. We bought an old boiler on eBay, hauled it home, and set it up outside our Sugar Shack (where we cook the juice). We still use wood to stoke the boiler, but the sorghum is cooked by copper pipes immersed in the juice, and the steam is controlled by a valve. The trick to consistently producing excellent sorghum is cooking the juice as rapidly as possible—without losing control. With live steam we can take juice at room temperature and bring it to a boil in about two minutes. If we have too much sorghum ready at once, we can simply choke off the steam and slow everything down until the surge has been digested.

With our current method there are three pans set up in a cascade, where the juice flows from one to the next via float valves. In each pan there are channels that the juice must flow through maze-like to get from the entry point to the exit, merrily cooking and condenser as it goes. 

With our current method we generally start after first coffee in the morning and almost always wrap up before dinner time. Very civilized.
• • •
One of the joys of being in the sorghum business is that we're continuing a tradition that came into the area with the early settlers of the mid-19th Century. While we rely on modern technology for stainless steel pans (sorghum juice is incredibly acidic and literally eats carbon steel) there's nothing about our cooking process that relies on technology newer than stationary motors with flat belt pulleys. Our sorghum mill, as near as we can tell, was manufactured circa 1900. The wood that feeds the boiler is harvested sustainably from our property. The cane is cut by hand using machetes, and hauled to our mill with wagons pulled by our fleet of three gas-powered tractors—all of which were manufactured 50+ years ago.

I think it's pretty cool that we're producing high-quality sorghum with a low-tech system. And now we have photographic proof that Zingerman's agrees with the lofty opinion we've always held for our product. Next time you're in Ann Arbor, I suggest you stop by for a meal at the Roadhouse (located on the southwest corner of Jackson & Maple on the west side of town). If you order biscuits, ask for some sorghum to go along with the butter and they'll bring it right out. In addition to experiencing a traditional and distinctive American dish, you'll be getting a sweet burst of Sandhill in every bite. 

No comments: