For many families living in and around the Smokies before the creation of the national park, fall was the season for harvesting and processing sorghum syrup—a sweet treat that shines particularly when combined with butter on hot biscuits and pancakes or mixed in porridge and grits.
Today, the smell of simmering syrup still summons memories of cool days, autumn leaves, and communities coming together to harvest and mill their crops.
“Fall is when the sorghum is ripe and ready to start cooking, and that smell is what makes the whole season,” said Sherry Guenther, daughter-in-law of late Muddy Pond Sorghum founders John and Emma Guenther. “We’re usually at Cades Cove every weekend when the fall colors come in, and together with the smell of it cooking, it transports you back to a simpler time. It’s so relaxing.”
For three generations, the Guenther family in Monterey, Tennessee, has crafted this molasses-like treat out of love for both taste and tradition. Determined to keep the practice alive, the Guenthers use a labor-intensive process to make 100 percent pure Muddy Pond Sorghum that involves squeezing juice from the cane, bringing the juice to a boil, and then reducing it down over a wood-fired furnace.
“A lot of people think it’s similar to molasses, but molasses is made with sugar cane—and we can’t grow sugar cane here,” said Sherry. “Sugar cane only grows farther south, but sorghum cane can grow here, so it became a regional staple. It’s sweeter and has a more complex taste, real earthy. A lot of older people remember it from back when they were kids, and we get to remind them of that part of their heritage.”
To both introduce and re-introduce a broader audience to sorghum, Sherry and her husband Mark Guenther have taken the family’s life work on the road. For years, the couple has traveled with mules, tools, equipment, and supplies in tow, demonstrating their chosen art form at the old cane mill near Cades Cove Visitor Center. Never failing to attract a crowd of onlookers, the Guenthers sell their Muddy Pond products through GSMA stores as well as at various fairs, theme parks, and festivals across the region.
“It’s a dying art—not a lot of people are making it anymore, especially on the level that we are,” Sherry said. “But it’s a good feeling to be making a product that’s so rare, showing people part of their heritage and keeping this tradition alive. It’s great to love what you do for a living.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Muddy Pond Sorghum has fallen on hard times as festivals, fairs, and other crowd-attracting events are canceled or closed due to physical distancing measures.
“This year’s been really rough for us,” Sherry said. “One after another, all the events got canceled, and without the shows, we don’t sell much. In spring and summer, it was sad and hard to comprehend. But then fall festival dates started going by, and there we still were at home.”
Although the Guenthers will not be hosting live demonstrations in Great Smoky Mountains National Park this fall, you can still stock up on this year’s fall harvest online at the GSMA web store and in any of the park’s visitor center stores. GSMA’s Mountain Makin’s in the Smokies and Food & Recipes of the Smokies also feature recipes including sorghum syrup, and you can learn even more about the sweet stuff by watching the recent SmokiEEES @ Home video on sorghum making, part of this year’s virtual Mountain Life Festival mini-series.