Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
In 1872, Currier and Ives released a print called “Maple Sugaring.” The image depicts a wooded scene on a snowy, early spring day; a frontier family goes through the steps of making maple sugar, from tapping the trees to boiling the sap. The print never fails to remind me of my childhood in Ohio, where early spring always meant a pancake breakfast. But it also represents a new tradition: every spring, my mom and dad tap their own backyard maple trees.
Our maple syrup adventure started over beers and a bet. Although I can’t remember how this particular conversation started, by the end, I had challenged my friend Mark to live off only self-produced food for a week — foods that were hunted, fished, farmed or foraged. He lives in an urban suburb of Cleveland, but he has a backyard and access to the infinite food resources Northeast Ohio provides. By the end of the night, we had involved his siblings, started a blog and set the rules.
My parents also got involved — reluctantly. They own three partially wooded acres in semi-rural Ohio, packed full of maple trees. Mark and I wanted to tap the trees so he could make his own maple syrup for the challenge. “It takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,” my mother chided.
“Do you understand how much maple syrup a gallon is?” I pointed out. “There’s no minimum requirement — couldn’t we make, like, a quart?”
My parents eventually agreed, and over the summer, when the trees were in leaf, they marked the sugar maples with bright red ribbon, so they could find them again in the early spring. Although New England is more prominently recognized for its maple syrup, Ohio is part of the syrup belt that stretches from the Midwest to Canada: the only part of the world sugar maples grow, as well as other tapable maples like the silver maple. The sap of these trees has a high sugar content, ranging from 2-5%. When the sap is boiled, the water evaporates away to leave a thick, sweet syrup or, if boiled longer, crystallized maple sugar.
Maple syrup and maple sugar were historically very valuable as a “free” source of sugar to America’s earliest settlers. Cane sugar could not be grown in the North and was very expensive, as well as difficult to import to the frontier. Maple sugar, although extremely labor-intensive, came without cost from the indigenous maple trees. Thomas Jefferson believed the home-grown production of maple sugar could release us from our dependence on the slave-produced white sugar of the Caribbean. However,maple sugar was so common, its distinct flavor was considered a disadvantage, and inferior to white sugar. Even as recently as World War II, maple sugar was still recommended as a cheap and plentiful substitute for rare and rationed white sugar.
Symbols of maple sugar’s importance are easy to find all over Etsy; there are images of sugar shacks — the small house built for evaporating maple sugar — as well as sugar bushes, a grove of maple trees. The tools of the trade can still be found, including antiqued, but usable spiles, the metal or wood tube pounded into the tree when its “tapped,” allowing the sap to flow. Beautiful wood buckets can be also purchased; they’ve spent years hanging in silent woods, catching sap as the earth begins to warm.
You can also taste handmade sugar and syrup thanks to Etsy vendors. The costliest bottle of store-bought syrup has never been able to compare to the stuff that comes out of my parent’s back yard. The first year, the syrup was light golden and tasted like maple syrup that already had fatty butter stirred in. The next year, the syrup was darker and tasted of vanilla and green budding trees. The weather each year makes a different syrup, I personally love the syrup that comes from the trees late in the season: it’s darker, richer and more potent that the delicate, first-flow syrup.
In my New York apartment, I’ve been squirreling away a jar of last season’s syrup in my freezer. Poured over pancakes, the taste reminds me of my home, twenty years ago, and hundreds of miles away.
Editor’s note: For photos of maple sugaring at Sarah’s parents’ home, check out this post on her blog.