Sampling Hot Sorghum…(the Importance of Festivals in eastern Kentucky)

It is festival season in eastern Kentucky. Around this time of year you can visit the Apple Festival, the Honey Festival, the Chicken Festival, the Swift Silver Mine Festival, Wool Festival and even the Woolly Worm Festival. It seems that most tiny eastern Kentucky towns have some reason to celebrate this time of year.

In Morgan County, where I currently live, we host the Sorghum Festival. If you’re not familiar with sorghum, it’s a sticky sweet substance similar to molasses. Folks from this region have lots of different ways to use it. My husband, who grew up in West Liberty, uses it as his primary sweetener. When I’m spooning tablespoons of honey into my oatmeal, he’s adding a dollop of sorghum. It is also delicious in cookies, barbecue sauce, chili and even craft beer! In fact, Vogue Magazine, just named Sorghum the new quinoa in the Aug. 2016 issue.

My favorite part of our local sorghum festival is, you guessed it, the sorghum.

Danny Townsend, a local sorghum grower, demonstrates all weekend the making of sorghum the old fashioned way. And that way involves a mule-driven mill that grinds the sweet cane into a syrup. That syrup is then transferred to vats and boiled down into a bubbling, thick, rich substance that pairs best with a homemade cathead biscuit.

All weekend long, while I demonstrate painting, stuffing or just chat with visitors to the sorghum festival, I see folks walk by with cut cane stalk, dipping it into a styrofoam cup with a sampling of fresh-made sorghum. That image makes me smile! Oftentimes, those folks might be dressed in bib overalls with a red bandana sticking out the pocket. When I visited my first Sorghum Festival with my husband, I couldn’t help but notice all the people in bibs! Apparently, this is part of the Sorghum tradition as well–old fashioned dress, little girls in braids, even the Sorghum queen (crowned during the Friday night football game), wears an old time prairie dress. This is a charming tradition, one that I hope carries on well into the future.

Under the tent, you’ll find entrepreneurs of all sorts, professional artists and home crafters alike. Small festivals in eastern Kentucky are a necessity. In areas where the economy is struggling, festival season allows folks to earn extra income for the year. In West Liberty, it is especially critical since the tornado of 2012 destroyed most of our retail shopping establishments. This event allows Morgan Countians and others to shop in county, to shop with our neighbors and support their efforts. Festivals also allow burgeoning artists the opportunity to put their work in front of the people, to really see if¬†entrepreneurship is something they would like to seriously undertake. It is the first step for many artists before investing in and branching out to other, more well-known art fairs.

It was my first step in the public art sales arena. And I am thankful to have been allowed to take that first step in what has become an art career.

So, this weekend, I’ll have my dolls and homemade ornaments set up at my hometown festival. I won’t be wearing bibs, but I will be supporting my community with my art and with my dollars as I shop and eat local this weekend! And I’ll be smiling at all you little ones in your bibs, sampling hot sorghum and partaking in old traditions and maybe making some new ones.

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(To find me under the Big Top on Main Street, look for city Hall and follow the sidewalk down to Helton’s Tax Service. I’ll be in that area, next to good friend and one of my favorite artists, Pam Oldfield Meade.)

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