Author: Campbell, Bruce

Raise Up a Barrel Today

The sights and sounds of Nashville are still with me. I have some sampler CDs that the record companies hand out, and I’m still wading through all that music. Plus, I’m still trying to remember some of the songs I heard while jamming there – I took some notes, and that’ll help.

But it’s not just the Bluegrass music that makes Nashville memorable – there’s also the food. I was aware of southern food, from eating at “southern style” eateries here in California, but just as it’s nice to hear bluegrass music in the region where it originated, it’s nice to eat southern food in a place where it’s just known as “food”.

Here in California, we all know about southern fried chicken, and it wouldn’t be surprising to report that the fried chicken in Tennessee is yummy. Ditto for fried catfish. It’s the details, though, that were a delightful surprise. The greens – omigosh, the greens, that accompany a respectable southern meal – they were terrific. And the green beans! I love green beans, but in California, they’re slim and served snappy – barely cooked. In the south, they’re a flatter variety and cooked till they’re soft.

But it’s the biscuits that are really out of this world. I’ve eaten biscuits all my life. I’ve had ‘em made from scratch – sometimes, light and flaky, sometimes dense and chewy. I’ve had ‘em with butter, honey and with gravy. Biscuits and gravy is one of my favorite breakfasts, and I’ve ordered it in cafes all over the place. I know what biscuits and gravy are supposed to taste like, and not every place gets it right.

But in Tennessee – oh, they get biscuits. They serve them with pretty much every meal, in the same way most meals come with bread in California. If the meal’s breakfast, then there’s also some “sausage gravy” to put on the biscuits. For any meal, however, there’s a variety of toppings for your biscuits. You can put butter on them, or jelly or preserves, or honey. Or, you can put sorghum on your biscuits.

For me, sorghum is something you sing about in bluegrass. It comes in a barrel, which you can “raise up” for a girl named Liza Jane (possibly Saro's sister), whom I believe is a pretty little girl who will feed your pig (which is home in a pen) when you’re gone. It seemed like odd compensation for babysitting your hog while you’re away.

The CBA has at least one sorghum expert: CBA Treasurer Ed Alston. As a sommelier is to wine, so is Ed to sorghum. I have witnessed Ed choosing sorghum at an open air farmer’s market, and it’s thrilling to watch. He moves swiftly and gracefully among the stalls, head on a swivel, looking for the telltale golden-sepia hue of jars of sorghum. When he finds a sorghum-monger, he takes a jar, holds it up to the light and watches how it moves around in the jar. Politely asking permission, he opens a jar and samples the sorghum. Many are tried – few are chosen. I wanted no part of it. It looked too weird.

But if Ed is a sorghum expert, he also a great evangelist for the joys of sorghum, and gradually, over two years, he wore me down. Finally, this year, he chose a special vintage, and during our morning meeting, he said it was time. “Hold out your hand”, he said gravely. “I’ll pour a few drops of sorghum on it, and you can try it.”

The first thing I learned is, sorghum is like maple syrup or honey in consistency, so it’s nearly impossible to “pour a few drops”. A few drops DO come out of the jar, but then the pour ends with a lengthy, sticky string of sorghum dribbling on everything between the destination and the jar. But I was born to have adventure, so I cautiously sampled the gooey stuff. It was good! “Wait till you have it on biscuits!”, Ed said.

Eventually, I DID have sorghum on biscuits, and it was heavenly. Suddenly, the stereotype of southern males with their bellies hanging over the big belt buckles made perfect sense. Anyone that lives in a region where biscuits and sorghum are available at almost every meal table must always be fighting a losing battle of the bulge. It’s just too good!

This week, I will be treating my family to a southern dinner of braised pork chops, fried catfish, corn puddin’, turnip greens and squash. And, thanks to a shipment I received today from the Loveless Café, the meal will be topped off with hot homemade biscuits, and genuine southern sorghum. Mark my words: Sorghum – it’s not just for breakfast anymore. Raise up a barrel today!

Posted:  10/14/2009

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