If the northeast corner of the United States has a discernable “taste”, it might well be maple.
Maple sugar, maple syrup, maple whatever. The taste of maple in all its myriad glories. Of course, we share that unique taste with our Canadian neighbors to the north and even with some of our Pennsylvania and Upper Midwest cousins, but when push comes to shove, and when crisp Fall days bring busloads of leaf-peepers into the area to ogle the brilliant color foliage displays, it’s pretty obvious that we’re maple folks around here.
Sure, the good folks in Canada produce the bulk of the world’s supply of maple products, but those of us in the northeast are no slouches, either. Plus, if you live anywhere in the U.S., you don’t need a passport or similar government-issued I.D. to travel here to look at our leaves or get some of our locally-produced maple stuff.
Our towering northeast maples give us great shade in summer and – as a form of punishment for enjoying it all too much - lots of leaves to rake in the fall. The trade-off for some of that raking is the “sugar season” in the earliest days of spring, when the sunny days and frosty nights get the sap running.
Drive around the rural northeast in sugar season and you’ll see acre upon acre of maple trees, all seemingly joined together with miles of plastic tubing. The old-style sap collecting buckets that used to hang from the sides of the tapped maple trees are mostly gone now, replaced by those miles of plastic tubing.
Besides, the idea of “sugar season” is much more appealing than “mud season.”
For centuries, northeast farmers with a stand of maples (sometimes called a “sugar bush”) spent part of their time transforming the maple sap from their trees into maple syrup and maple sugar. The transformation takes place by boiling the sap, thus driving off the excess water and leaving the sweetness and that unique maple taste. Generally, it’s outdoor work, best performed in a rough, shed-like building called a “sugar shack” while there’s still snow on the ground. Come “sugaring-off” time, parts of the rural Northeast have a distinct smell as the smoke from wood fires mixes with the scent of the boiling maple sap.
In the earliest times around here, syrup and sugar making was a labor-intensive family affair. There was plenty of work for everyone. There were buckets of sap to be hauled, firewood to be chopped, fires in need of building and tending, boiling sap that needed watching, sugar that had to be packed and syrup that had to be bottled.
In good years, after the family stash of syrup and sugar was put away, there’d be enough to sell or trade.
While the maple trees freely give up their sap, the process of transforming it into the wonder of syrup is hard work. It takes around 40 to 43 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of maple syrup. That’s a lot of hauling and chopping and processing. That’s also why maple syrup has never been inexpensive.
Still, maple sugar was Nature’s gift to the new nation fixed on developing its own self-sufficiency. Tench Coxe, the late 18th century author of "A View of the United States" noted that "every farmer having one hundred acres of maple sugar land in a state of ordinary American improvement . . . can make one thousand pounds weight of sugar with only his necessary farming and kitchen utensils."
There’s another side to maple syrup and sugar making that I alluded to in the last post. Maple syrup and maple sugar have an interesting “political” history that goes back to colonial and early Federal times.
Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia published an essay in 1788 entitled “Advantages of the Culture of the Sugar Maple Tree” and shortly thereafter founded a group called “The Society for Promoting the Manufacture of Sugar from the Sugar Maple Tree.” Then, in November of 1790, Thomas Jefferson purchased a 50 pound bag of refined maple sugar; rumor has it that maple sugar was the sweetener of choice at Monticello.
Further north, as settlers pushed west, James Fenimore Cooper’s father William, a land speculator and promoter, lauded the advantages of life in his particular part of upstate New York by pointing out the abundance of sugar maples.
Lucretia Coffin Mott, a Nantucket Quaker, learned that only maple sugar was served at her Quaker school in Nine Partners, New York. White sugar had been banished.
Of course, this “maple sugar thing” was much more than just the leaders and thinkers of a young nation advocating the advantages of being independent and self-sufficient. It was more than idle economic speculation; it was politics – pure and simple like the maple syrup itself.
Many believed that widespread use of maple sugar and syrup would depress the market for West Indian cane sugar and molasses, and in the process, destroy the institution of West Indian slavery. Benjamin Rush wrote, "I cannot help contemplating a sugar maple tree with a species of affection and even veneration, for I have persuaded myself to behold in it the happy means of rendering the commerce and slavery of our African brethren in the sugar islands as unnecessary as it has always been inhuman and unjust."
Maple sugar was, in effect, a political tool of the early abolitionists. If maple sugar could be processed to a state where it was as sweet and nearly as tasteless as cane sugar, there would be no real incentive to import the cane sugar made by slave labor on West Indian plantations.
For more insight on this, please read Yoni Applebaum’s excellent (and intriguingly titled) essay that appeared in yesterday’s Atlantic, called “Making The Grade: Why The Cheapest Maple Syrup Tastes Best.”
Also, if you’d like to get a sense of what it was like to make maple syrup and sugar years ago, check out this short “history” section on the Maple Weekend website. Perhaps you’ll plan a trip to these parts during sugaring off time next year:
Stop back next time. There will be more about this in the next post. In the meantime, remember that the stuff on the supermarket shelves labeled “pancake syrup” is probably not “real” maple syrup, no matter how much the manufacturers who concoct the witches’ brew of high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavorings and fake color would like you to think it is.
Spring for a small bottle of the real thing and experience the difference. In a way, you’ll be tasting history.
Maple’s truly the taste of the northeast.