Updated: Mar 8, 2021
I wrote this piece 7 years ago for my editor's column in Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Spring-Summer 2014, Vol. 40: 1-2. It is used by permission www.nyfolklore.com.
My photographs are new additions.
"Sap's Running!" is a welcomed greeting in the early spring of Upstate New York. It usually happens around March, when the sun is a bit higher in the sky and is shining just that much longer each day.
If there's snowpack (and there usually is), then a bit of melt has begun. On weekend walks around the rural hills of my home, you can see and hear the movement of the melt, darkening the snow, trickling into the depressions of the land, and moving on to the streams.
The watery sap of the sugar maple also begins to move out of the roots and up into the branches and leaves of the trees. It's during these first few weeks of spring, with sunny days and cold, below-freezing nights that the gathering and boiling can begin.
All maple syrup producers rely on this slight, but noticeable turn away from the dark and cold days of winter. Large and small operators are found throughout the northern forests of the Northeast, wherever the sugar maple thrives. The rivalry between New York and Vermont producers is keen, though as a border dweller, I really don't notice a taste difference. Biggest overall production is actually found further north in Canada, with New York and Vermont coming in second and third, respectively.
Native Americans have long collected sap and boiled it for syrup, sharing the tradition with the French of Canada and the English of New England. Someone back in time was pretty smart, or incredibly desperate, at the end of winter to boil 32-40 gallons of water for every gallon of maple syrup. The Abenaki say that this sweet treat once dripped from the trees, available any time of the year with no work required. But people got lazy and unappreciative of this free gift, so the Creator diluted the syrup to a watery sap, making the people work for this sweet staple.
Indeed. These days its takes time and energy to produce this gift of nature. Wood fires are often used to boil down the sap, and it takes a lot of wood. A cord of firewood will be burned for every 25 gallons of pure maple syrup. That's a stack of wood 8 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 4 feet high.
Mountains of firewood and the sugar shacks – with their telltale open cupola in the peak of the roof to let out the steam – are evidence of this work. Looking closely at the landscape, you find more evidence of sugaring. Covered galvanized buckets and horse-drawn sleds have mostly replaced bark containers or wooden buckets with carrying yokes. Very often, plastic tubing, shaded blue, crisscrosses from tree to tree down to a collection point – sometimes the sugar shack, sometimes barrels (of metal or blue plastic), or reused stainless steel milk house tanks. Maple trees along the road, decorated with repurposed plastic gallon milk jugs, might point to a small backyard setup.
Nonetheless, whatever the setup and equipment, sugaring is in the blood. Many local farm families, like the Campbells of Mapleland Farms, have been sugaring for at least 4 generations to add to the income of their dairy and potato businesses. Others are new to the tradition – "backyard producers" – like my younger brother who boils enough for a year's supply of pure maple syrup, stored in quart canning jars for his family's pancakes, to give away as special gifts, and to sweeten his morning coffee.
Eight gallons of syrup can be condensed into a pound of maple sugar. Once used as a homemade substitute for cane sugar, maple sugar and maple syrup have been mainstays of North Country cooking, found in local recipes for maple-glazed ham, maple Johnnycake, maple-sweetened baked beans, candied popcorn, dumplings in maple syrup, maple frosting, maple sugar pie, just to name a few.
One of my fondest memories from my first years as a folklorist in the Adirondacks was my visit to Athol's Jack Wax Party, an annual fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. This event continues to attract a large following, starting off with a supper of homemade savory dishes, not unlike the church suppers that I experienced as a child. However, as good as the food is, everyone is there for dessert: pure maple syrup cooked on the industrial stove and ladled onto snow, apportioned into individual paper bowls. The quickly cooled, cooked syrup forms into a taffy-like dessert, called Jack Wax or Sugar on Snow. With a twirl of a fork you eat it as is, possibly with a sour pickle chaser to cut the sweet and allow you to eat more. The year I was there was a rare year when the organizers had to travel north to Indian Lake to bring back snow for the event.
Closer to home, I like to visit the Upper Hudson New York Maple Producers booth at the Washington County Fair in August, to indulge in another maple treat: cotton candy spun from pure maple sugar. Not to be missed. Trust me. The same folk celebrate, in season, with an annual Maple Weekend, inviting the public to an open house and self-guided tour in March, to visit and learn about this local product from a number of their neighbors who make it each year. Many visitors use the map to tour the countryside, visit the sugar shacks, see the trees being tapped, taste the samples, maybe indulge in a pancake breakfast, and yes, buy a gallon or two of New York maple syrup.
These days, my kids are all in college or beyond. Yet they cannot understand anyone's interest in "maple-like" substitute "pancake syrups," featuring less than two percent real maple syrup – a mostly corn syrup product with added color and flavorings. For them, it has to be the real deal, or why bother?
My thought this spring is to send them some of Tim Dwyer's maple syrup. Tim, a neighbor around the corner, boils maybe 200 gallons of syrup each year. It's also a good excuse to bring a dish to his annual Shushan Sity Sap Shack potluck, featuring craft beer made from his syrup, and providing company during the long hours of boiling. I'll also pick up some maple sugar. My daughter loves this treat and thinks it the perfect gift to bring to her German host family during a musical exchange this coming summer.