The Sweet Life
Wielding machetes, a dozen people wearing jeans and T-shirts hack at rows of sorghum grass in front of the Duckett House Inn & Farm in Hot Springs. The field hands then lop off the fluffy seed pods and strip the thick outer armor, revealing tender, pale stalks. Now the stalks are ready to be pushed through the mill—the pressed juices will be boiled for hours to create golden sorghum syrup.
This is the inn’s annual sorghum harvest, and while the workers, mostly friends and neighbors of inn owners Brian Baker and his partner, Frank Matula, are toiling under a scorching early autumn sun, they have a feast to look forward to at the end of the day. Typically the event is a potluck affair, but this year, Baker is preparing a meal that showcases the smoky-sweet syrup in a variety of dishes and will send the volunteers home with jars of the sorghum from last year’s harvest.
Schooled in the Miami restaurant scene, Baker continues to share his culinary talents at the sprawling, white clapboard B&B. He also handles the front of the house at the nearby Iron Horse Station. Matula, a builder, crafts everything from elaborate barn doors and homes to the copper-accented barn on the grounds that serves as his studio.
The innkeepers adopted the harvest seven years ago, resurrecting a tradition that took place a few miles down the road at Randall Lanier’s farm. Today, Lanier, who donated the grinding mill to the inn, is driving the tractor that propels it. “It’s become a fall community social,” says Baker. “We really try to do it up right.”
Pick Your Own
Today, sorghum syrup isn’t the only ingredient pulled from the yard. During an early morning walk through the garden, past a tangle of foxtail grass and morning glories, Baker picked rosemary, oregano, and thyme for the pork marinade and basil for the risotto. A quick stop at the hen house yielded eggs for the pumpkin pie. “I like cooking with the seasons,” he explains. “It’s very important to me to have a sense of where my food is coming from. It’s a connection to the land around me.”
By midmorning, Baker is as busy in the kitchen as his friends are in the field, roasting corn on the stove-top grill for the corn bread and creating the pie custard from soft, baked chunks of pumpkin. In addition to fragrant cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, Baker pours thick ribbons of sorghum into the filling. Next, he rolls out the chilled dough for a pie shell and pops the dessert in the oven. He checks the pork rack marinating in the refrigerator before finally getting to sample the sweet, iced coffee he made for the workers.
Neighbor Heidi Schaefer helps Baker pour the coffee into tall glasses. Carrying the refreshment out on a tray, an idyllic scene plays out before her. Her four-year-old son, Rainer Schaefer-Huff, is loping around the meadow, dragging the sorghum stalks to the pile that will be fed into the mill. Baker and Matula’s blue heeler, Jack, runs after a ball with the volunteers’ visiting dogs, and several men across the field are stoking a fire underneath an enormous stainless steel basin in preparation for the cooking process that will last late into the night.
“Trying to keep up with the tractor is hard,” Rainer shouts as he follows the machine around in the circle it makes while turning the mill, which gnashes the stalks between metal teeth, and dispenses a cloudy liquid into tin buckets.
The buckets are hoisted onto sunburnt shoulders as the workers take the cane juice from the mill to the basin to be poured through paper filters. It will boil until it’s thick and a deep shade of amber. A hundred gallons of sorghum juice will bubble down to just 10 gallons of syrup.
“Sticking your fingers in the pan and tasting the warm syrup is my favorite part of the harvest,” reflects Matula, who uses the versatile syrup to flavor pancake batter and breakfast breads. Not to be confused with the sweeter and darker molasses, sorghum has a richer, smokier flavor. “I set out a jar with fresh-baked biscuits for our guests, and Brian uses it to glaze meats, like the pork we’re having today,” he says.
Day is Done
Late in the afternoon, a quarter acre of the heirloom honeydrip sorghum has been whittled down to just a few rows. Jackie Bolin, a former Hot Springs resident, made a trip from her home in Minnesota for the occasion.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she says. “You’re surrounded by all this nature, and there’s an amazing community of friends. It’s pretty cool to imagine this was the way some of the settlers of this area worked.”
Picnics tables have been pulled together under shade trees and set with country linens and wildflowers so the group can eat family style. As side dishes are brought out of the kitchen, the harvesters wash up. Bottles of cold beer are handed out, but also glasses of light red wines that pair well with the glazed pork and other autumnal fare. Baker sets out a pitcher of syrup to complement the savory chops.
A comfortable silence engulfs the table as the weary fortify themselves and survey the naked field before them. Tonight, backs will be sore and fingers blistered, but all is outweighed by a tangible sense of community—that connection between past and present, where neighbors come together for hard work and a shared meal.
- 1/4 cup cold-pressed olive oil
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 Tbs. Kosher salt
- 1 Tbs. fresh ground pepper
- 2 Tbs. fresh thyme, stripped from stems
- 1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
- 2 Tbs. fresh rosemary
- 2 Tbs. fresh oregano, chopped
- 8 pork chops, thick-cut
Blend oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and herbs in a food processor. Place pork chops on a cooking sheet and drizzle with herb mixture. Cover and refrigerate for three hours. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place chops in hot skillet and sear for three minutes on each side, or until brown. Roast in oven about eight minutes on each side for medium. Reserve drippings. Serve with warm sorghum glaze.
In a saucepan, simmer syrup, garlic, and pork drippings for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove garlic cloves. Serve with pork.
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 2 cups pureed pumpkin
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 2 Tbs. sorghum syrup
- 1 nine-inch unbaked pie crust
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a bowl, mix sugar, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and salt. In a food processor, blend pumpkin, eggs, cream, milk, and sorghum. Add dry ingredients and pulse until well blended. Pour filling into crust. Bake until set in center and slightly puffed around edges, about 65 minutes. Cool on rack
- 2 medium-size butternut squash
- 2 qts. heavy cream
- 3 garlic cloves, roasted
- Salt & pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut squash in half, place in a roasting pan, and bake for 30 minutes. Spoon the squash out of the shell and purée in blender. In a saucepan, bring cream to a simmer and reduce heat. Add garlic, salt, and pepper. Whisk squash into cream mixture and heat until warm. Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche.
In a saucepan, warm cream over low heat, then transfer to bowl and add buttermilk. Cover and allow to thicken in a warm place (above 75°F) for 24 to 36 hours. The crème fraîche is ready when it’s thick and has a slightly nutty-sour taste.
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 4 green tomatoes, sliced
- 1 qt. buttermilk
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- Roasted Red Pepper Jam
- 2 large red bell peppers, roasted
- 1 large red onion, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, roasted and chopped
- 1 ripe tomato, seeded
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Mix flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper in a wide dish. Soak tomatoes in buttermilk approximately 20 minutes. In a skillet, heat canola oil. Remove tomatoes from buttermilk, dredge in flour mixture, and fry until golden brown, turning if needed. Place on paper towels to absorb excess oil. Serve with roasted red pepper jam.
Roasted Red Pepper Jam
Preheat oven to 450°F. Place peppers in a pan on top oven rack. Turn with tongs every three to five minutes so peppers roast evenly. When cool, rub the skin off with a paper towel. Chop peppers. In a pan, sauté onion until soft. Add peppers, garlic, tomato, sugar, and balsamic vinegar. Simmer for 45 minutes to an hour until the consistency of jam, stirring occasionally. Serve warm or cold with tomatoes.