Sweet Sorghum: Business celebrates 23rd year, eyes new leadership

Royce Tucker puts stalks of a sorghum plant inside of the grinder Friday on his property in Calhoun.

When Royce Tucker was working at Owensboro’s Modern Welding Company in 1998, he decided to get back into sorghum cooking — an old family trade that he was fond of as a child.

“I just had the urge to get back into it,” Tucker said. “Back years ago, when my dad was making it, I was probably around 9 (or) 10 years old. (But) he quit making it and sold the mill, the pan and everything.”

Tucker created his own business, Copper Pan Sorghum. But 23 years later, Tucker, who turns 79 years old this week, is ready to step down and have his son, Aaron Tucker, take over as the fourth generation of Tuckers making sorghum.

Since reigniting the family tradition, Royce Tucker has welcomed family members and friends to his Calhoun property to either assist him with cooking or to simply watch the process, allowing folks to revisit memories they had with their own families.

“It’s nostalgic,” said Brenda Tucker, Royce Tucker’s wife.

“People remember seeing it years ago,” Aaron Tucker said.

Most of the preparation for the sorghum cooking starts earlier in the year. Royce Tucker grows one acre of sorghum stalks in the spring, before cutting and removing some of the stalks at the end of September and early October.

The stalks are then put into a grinder, a vertical press W.B. Belknap & Co. New Blue Grass mill from 1896. The machine simplifies the stalks into extracted juices and pulpy residue.

“You get a little sweet taste (right from the grinder), but it’s not a lot,” Aaron Tucker said.

The juice from the stalks then goes through an underground pump that leads into an overhead barrel that filters the juice and removes any impurities, before Royce Tucker slowly trickles a small amount of juice into the evaporating copper pan; a process he describes being similar to making maple syrup. It takes two to three hours.

“I most enjoy it when I am able to get the sorghum all the way through the pan and get to see all the different colors,” Royce Tucker said. “That’s what I like about it.”

Once the juices are in the pan, Royce Tucker stirs the sorghum and skims out any excess green by-product from the stalk juices in order to ensure the best flavor possible, without any additional ingredients.

“There’s nothing added to it other than just a little sweat,” Royce Tucker joked.

The overall process can take longer than one might expect, as the pan needs to be set at an even heating temperature during the stirring process. But, Royce Tucker doesn’t mind.

“It takes about 10 to 12 hours …,” Royce Tucker said. “I always enjoyed watching (my) dad and everybody that (was) making it. I know that it takes patience to do it, but you need to take your time and let it cook. It takes a while to do it.”

Once brownish bubbles start appearing in the pan, the sorghum goes through a strainer to rid it of any excess foam before it’s ready to be served or purchased.

The taste of the final product is beyond anyone’s control.

“It depends on nature,” Aaron Tucker said. “(It’s) just like honey …. It’s a natural product, and you don’t put anything in it, so it just depends on what the weather does.”

Despite having some popularity in the state, including the Independence Bank Sorghum Festival in Hawesville, sorghum cooking isn’t as popular as it once was nationwide.

“I … enjoy doing it, but it’s kind of a dying art,” Royce Tucker said.

“There’s not a lot of people eating it … and it is a lot of hard work,” Aaron Tucker said. “The return is not that great. You see people in here helping (Royce), and if we had to pay everybody, there’s no way you would make a dime off of it.”

But, that has not been Royce Tucker’s first-hand experience.

Royce Tucker puts a sign up at the end of his street towards U.S. Hwy 431 to let people know that the sorghum is ready for purchase as pints and quarts for $6.50 and $10, respectively.

“Usually, I sell all that I make,” Royce Tucker said. “I’ve had people that have come back and want more later on. A lot of people use it for different things — basting, making a paste to put on top of a meatloaf ….”

Royce Tucker said he has another half acre of sorghum stalks to get ready to cook before Aaron Tucker takes over in the next few weeks.

“He’s ready,” Royce Tucker said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he can do it. It’s going to be his ball game.”

With Aaron Tucker close to taking the reins, Royce Tucker said he will miss leading the charge. But, Aaron Tucker knows that Royce Tucker won’t be disappearing after his last day.

“He’s still going to be around,” Aaron Tucker said. “He’s worked for 70 years — you can’t keep him down.”

Freddie Bourne, fbourne@mcleannews.com

Freddie Bourne, fbourne@mcleannews.com

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