Greetings my Dear Ones!
March is Maple Sugaring month in these parts. An older man (and by “older” I mean in his mid-nineties) marches into the shop with an armload of trousers he wants hemmed and three quart-sized mason jars full of amber liquid, which he plops on the cutting table with a thud. “Here you go, girls!” he announces in a voice that tells us his hearing aid is either off or out of batteries, “I brought you each a jar of my very own maple syrup! I’ve been boiling off all week. This is for you but I expect a little sweetness in return.” And then he holds out his arms as if we are supposed to rush to him and smother him with hugs and kisses. We all stand still and look at him for an awkward moment. He is well known in town as “a character.”
“Well,” says one of the “Girls,” “Sir, we’d be glad to hem your pants for you for free. That’s pretty sweet…”
“Hem my pants for free? Boy, you’re really getting the better deal out of that one!” he scoffs. “Do you know how much this stuff is worth?” he says, pointing at the syrup. Then he laughs and hugs the lady closest to him. It’s a brief hug and she laughs it off good naturedly. “My wife’s been dead for these past twenty years and I’m still mad at her for leaving me. Boy these hugs feel good,” he says, attempting to grab the next woman. She shrugs and gives him a tepid, wooden little hug. I am in my corner, behind my table, observing all of this from a safe distance as he launches into some inappropriate jokes that crack no one up but him. My colleagues and I exchange knowing glances. Our forced smiles and stiff-cheeked little chuckles accidentally encourage him. Ours is a “service” industry and we are polite “girls” but does this really have to be part of the service? Prudence is disgusted with him.
“It’s lonesome out there in the sugar shack,” he sighs. Part of me marvels that he is in a sugar shack at all, instead of parked in a rocking chair somewhere. I have never seen a man in his nineties looking so robust. He is built like a windmill. “Do you know how much water has to come off the sap before it becomes syrup? It’s a hell of a lot,” he says, “it’s about forty to one. That’s why it don’t come cheap.”
Boy do I know… One cannot live twenty five years in Red Sox territory without having tried, at least once, to make Maple syrup. I’m not sure how other people do it, but this is how I have, keeping in mind Pete Seeger’s comment that “Any damn fool can make things more complicated…” or words to that effect.
1. Have Scottish husband told by friend in pub that Maple syrup comes from TREES, yes, trees! Trees in our yard. All we have to do is poke some holes in them, gather sap, boil it and Hey! Presto! FREE syrup right in our own back yard. No more spending twenty-three dollars a gallon at the grocery store. What could be easier or more fun? The kids will love it!
2. Become convinced that all that “free sap” on our property will go to waste if we do not boil ninety gallons of the stuff for several weeks.
3. Rush out and drill six taps in the trees lining our front yard. Daydream about the Olden Days and how charming this little “family activity” is going to be, despite the fact that the children, resembling brightly colored bear cubs tottering around in their snow gear, munching on dirty snow, are totally oblivious to the project.
4. Realize we are going to need some buckets. Some families assemble all the necessary equipment BEFORE they commence a project. Not us. We prefer the drama of racing to the garage, dumping buckets of junk on the floor, and hastily scrubbing out the dirty cobwebs after the sap is already dribbling down the tree trunk.
5. Look doubtfully at the bare branches scraping the sky above. After they have already been tapped, Make Sure you have identified the trees properly. “Are you sure these are the right sort of trees?” I ask, A Field Guide to North American Trees being conspicuously absent..
6. Get reassured by man Who Has No Idea. “Of course they are!” He snorts indignantly. “They are made of wood, aren’t they?” he says, patting the nearest tree trunk affectionately. “So they are definitely trees. And these,” he says collecting some fallen leaves, “look just like the Canadian flag, so we’re good.”
7. Watch him grab some of the plastic tubing and chop off a length.
8. Realize that it is not long enough to reach the bucket.
9. Connect trees to buckets using plastic tubing until they resemble medical specimens, hooked up to large plasma buckets, giving blood.
10. Have husband leave for a week-long business trip to Vegas the next day.
11. Check the buckets. Find all three full and frozen.
12. Lug three forty-pound buckets up hill, through deep snow, with a four-year-old on your back. Make two to four trips, as necessary.
13. Consult “granny Google, and Aunty You-Tube,” the modern repository of all ancient folk wisdom, to find out what to do next.
14. Learn that sap must be collected daily. It will keep a short time if frozen but quickly grows an unsavory mold in less than two days if thawed. Meanwhile, the tree will continue to produce more and more as the Spring sap run gets going. The sap rushes up the tree in the morning and returns to the roots as the temperatures drop at night. This means the sap flows quickly through the tubing, into the collection buckets, twice a day—just like the milking of a cow. Like other farm activities, it is light-driven and happens twice a day. Buckets must be emptied at least once a day. One’s choices are to boil the sap continually, to concentrate it, or keep running to the garage to empty more buckets of tools onto the floor on a daily basis.
15. Also learn that it takes between forty and fifty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. This means an average of 39 gallons of moisture must enter the atmosphere of the home if done on the kitchen stove. The website is clear: “This is an operation best done out of doors, as considerable steam must be released. The sap must be kept at a rolling boil but stirred constantly and not allowed to burn. Traditionally, this was done in cauldrons over large, open fires.”
16. Begin frantic search for a cauldron while children and dogs lick frozen hunks of sap, ignoring the bits of grass, leaves, and tree debris imbedded in the ice.
17. Ram a chunk into the largest saucepan you own and turn the stove heat up as high as it will go.
18. Hours later, discover kitchen enveloped in a sweet-smelling fog redolent of cotton candy floss. Every surface of the counters and cabinets should be damp and slightly sticky. Look for Moisture collecting in droplets on the ceiling above the stove. The contents of the pot, once clear, should be the color of muddy chardonnay. A crystalline frost obscuring the windows signals things are going well.
19. Boil into the night, after the children are tucked in bed. To them, observing syrup production is about as much fun as watching paint dry. Forget the stories of Laura Ingalls and the community sugar party at the Little House in the Big Woods. Here, in the Big Suburbs there is no festival; just their solitary, sweaty mother stirring and muttering over an electric burner. The only exciting part is watching her dance and scream when she accidentally kicks a bucket of thawed sap all over the kitchen floor. So much for their father’s dreams of providing them with “education, exploration, and the power of self-reliance.” Forget science; at best, they learn a few bad words while their mother mops and mops.
20. Give up at midnight and dump the rest of the frozen hunks into a large, square plastic container formerly used to store mittens. The mittens, like the junk in the garage, can be stored temporarily on the floor.
22. Discover by dawn’s light that the container possesses a tiny hole which, while not being big enough to permit the passage of mittens, is ample to allow several gallons of melted sap to leak all over the floor.
23. Begin the day with more energetic dancing and screaming, not to mention a washer load of sap-sogged mittens.
24. While mopping AGAIN, ponder whether other historic wives felt the way you do in this moment. It’s hard to resist the dazzling enthusiasm of pioneer men who are certain their current plan is cheap, easy, and of benefit to Nature, Family and Society. To them, nothing could be easier or more straightforward—especially when they are directing operations by cell-phone hundreds of miles away.
25. Accidentally, set fire to the sap. Enjoy a spontaneous visit from the local fire department. This is the first thing to pique the children’s interest in the project.
26. Throw out smoking pot and begin again.
27. Repeat steps 11-26 for the next three weeks, varying the order as it suits your whims and fancy.
28. When all is said and done, tally the expenses of making your “free” syrup. Be sure to include $300 in electricity, cleaning supplies, phone bills, Internet fees, not to mention damage to stuff you drove over in the garage that was formerly stored in the plastic buckets.
29. Realize your three measly mason jars are worth about $900. Display them to visitors with the pride some people reserve for bowling trophies. This syrup is “too good to eat.”
30. Months later, cram the pantry shelves with bales of canned goods from the same wholesale retailer where you now purchase all your Maple syrup. In trying to shove twelve cans of corn into line, accidentally crack one of the mason jars hidden in the back. Slowly, with the invisible inevitability of a true force of Nature, the syrup will seep out along the shelf and crystallize, permanently gluing all of the recently purchased canned goods to the wooden shelf. Ever after, when one wants something from the pantry, one must bring along a hammer and chisel to free it from the grip of an ancient tree spirit.
So! There you are. How to make FREE Maple Syrup in 30 easy steps: All it takes is hundreds of dollars, some buckets, a lot of hand-knit mittens, every pot you own, some disinterested children, a few dogs, a good mop, new kitchen wallpaper (after the other stuff rolls down the walls) and one totally deluded female.
When the man in the shop approaches me with a jar of amber gold, and asks me what I think it is worth—I don’t know how to answer. Finally, he turns to leave and remembers he has not had a hug from me yet. As this “harmless old man from another era” shuffles closer and closer, arms extended, I think about the “me too” movement. I think about whether it is worth it to refuse. I don’t actually want his syrup or his hug. I think about how vulnerable we each are in that moment and what any one of us is willing to do for a little sweetness in our lives. However we define that “sweetness,” it is no bargain.
I have been a bee-keeper and a maker of jam. I can tell you from experience that Nature does not give up her glucose without a fight. It takes a lot of work to glean just a little sweetness. As humans, we know that Naivette + Experience usually lead to bitterness. Bitterness leads to defensive self-protection. Faith, Hope and Courage make us carry on and keep choosing Sweetness, despite its labors.
And What are we here for anyway, but to add a little sweetness to each other’s oatmeal?
Be well my Darlings! I hope your day is filled with the kind of sweetness you enjoy!