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Voices Fall-Winter, 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Foodways column, “Treasure from the Sugar Shack” by Lynn Case Ekfelt here.
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Volume 29
Fall-Winter
2003
Voices

Treasure from the Sugar Shack by Lynn Case Ekfelt

This column is directed to all those gourmet food shoppers across the country busily searching for "Vermont maple syrup" on the Internet. The secret is out: Much of Vermont’s fabled syrup is actually shipped over the border in huge tanks from New York State. At least that’s what North Country syrup makers tell me. So...eliminate the middleman and send your orders straight to the Empire State.

We have the Iroquois and Ojibwa to thank for teaching our ancestors how to notch sugar maple trunks and drive in wooden sticks to carry the sap to bark containers. In fact, maple syrup was the only sweetener known on this continent until honeybees were introduced into the colonies in the 1630s. The grading system used for syrup today dates from the time when northern maple sugar manufacturers were competing with southern cane sugar growers for the national sweetener market, according to gardener and cook Martha Rubin in her book Countryside, Garden and Table: A New England Seasonal Diary (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1993). The goal was a bland, flavorless sweetener for use in coffee and tea and for baking, so the darker grades of syrup came to be considered inferior. In fact, because they are more strongly flavored and less sweet, many people—myself included—actually prefer them, so don’t be scared off if your purveyor is out of Light Amber. Give Medium Amber a try, or even Dark.

The following description of sugaring by the Miller family of Hopkinton shows that the essence of syrup making has changed little since the days of the Iroquois:


Foodways
maple leaf "There’s a lot of walking involved in sugaring. You have to go once around the bush to drop off the buckets, once to drop off the lids, once to drill the holes, and once to pound the spiles. We used to tap our trees with an awl. Now we use a chainsaw with a special attachment.

"We put out three thousand buckets this year. Some people use plastic tubing to collect the sap nowadays; it goes right from the tree by gravity down to a holding tank at the sugar shack. We don’t like to do that, though; some of the customers say they can taste the difference. Years ago we used a tractor pulling a sled to collect the sap, but now we have a wagon with wheels.

"Our evaporator is made of sheet metal; it holds the steam down and makes the sap cook faster. We use a mixture of hard and soft wood to heat it. If the sap starts to boil over, you can sprinkle a little milk in it."


Why an evaporator? When the sap comes out of the tree, it is almost all water, most of which needs to be boiled away to produce the thicker, sweeter syrup. Because forty gallons of sap must be boiled down to make every gallon of syrup, the family spends lots of time in the sugar shack. Luckily, late winter into early spring is an off-season for farmers, so neighbors are a little freer to drop by for a chat to help the time pass. And of course there are tasty diversions, such as eggs hard-boiled in the sap and—better yet—jack wax, or wax-on-snow. There’s nothing so good as that confection: thin ribbons of boiling syrup poured over a pan of clean snow, then twirled up on the tines of a fork. Or if that’s too sweet and sticky for your taste, you can try the traditional method of alternating bites of wax-on-snow with bites of dill pickle.

A sugar bush is a treasure to be passed down through the generations, since a maple must usually be thirty years old and at least ten inches in diameter before it can be tapped. Like other forms of family farming, the maple syrup business mixes hard work with nail-biting in front of the Weather Channel. A good season lasts only two or three weeks and requires daytime temperatures in the forties and nights below freezing. In 2003 only a very late spring saved the syrup industry in the North Country. During the usual syrup-making weeks of late February, the days were much too cold for the sap to run. Then it looked as if the trees would begin to bud, making the sap "buddy"—strong and unusable—when it finally did begin to flow. But March stayed chilly, the trees stayed bare, and the producers let out a collective sigh of relief.

Sugaring is scarcely an easy source of income. Yet several years ago when the Watertown Daily Times predicted a terrible year for syrup and quoted economists who speculated that some farmers might not even bother to tap their trees, one syrup producer commented, "They may decide not to tap, but when the time comes, I bet they’ll be in the sugar shed. It gets into your blood."


 


MAPLE JOHNNYCAKE


Johnnycake was a staple of New York’s early Yankee settlers. The word may derive from journey-cake, a brick of cornmeal and water that travelers could bake over an open fire. This version, from Iona Brewer of Canton, has a nice maple sweetness that makes it delicious for breakfast.

2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat the eggs; add the milk, maple syrup, and melted butter. Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the liquid ingredients, beating until everything is well blended. Pour the batter into a greased 8-inch pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.


A sugar bush is a treasure to be passed down through the generations, since a maple must usually be thirty years old and at least ten inches in diameter before it can be tapped.



This column appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Fall-Winter 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.


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