Saturday, April 18, 2009

How to Do and Doing as Was Done; Maple Sugaring in Eddington

On a little less than an acre on Jarvis Gore Drive in Eddington, ME these past few weeks my four and a half year old son Gabriel and I rolled up our sleeves and literally took a stab at 6 or 7 maple trees of varying size (but not less than 12 inches in diameter) tapping them for their sap. The practice of tapping trees originated with Native Americans, and once sap was collected in quantity it was boiled to a sweet syrup. Many believe that Native Americans used the syrup to flavor meat and other things, whereas later Euro-Americans came up with the use of indulgent amounts of syrup for their flapjacks, waffles, and everything else that tastes good with it. I have been told that local Maine tribes tapped other trees like Beech in addition to maples of all varieties and box elders too. For the purposes of my own recent maple sugaring venture I didn't stick to sugar maples, which are often chosen for their high sugar content over other varieties of maples. I tapped all the large maples on my property, and these included a number of different types in addition to one or two sugar maples.

Because my son and I have seen trees tapped and sap boiled in recent years as I have made an attempt to have Gabe experience some of the things I experienced growing up in a small town and on the family dairy farm in Upstate New York, we weren't complete novices. My hometown itself is filled with low mountains, hardwood forests, and largely fallow fields from a one time thriving dairy industry that is, except for a few, now largely gone. Many of the trees and woods are still there, although much has been bulldozed and built upon in recent decades. The Town of Warwick is only 49 miles from Manhattan as the crow flies lying near the western part of the New Jersey Highlands, a stop on the Applachian Trail, which we know ends or starts close to here at Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park. As a Boy Scout I experienced Warwick's portion of the Applachian Trail first hand on a 50 mile hike in pouring rain to the well known stop, the Delaware Water Gap. There were many shorter trips on the Trail too by Troop 45 that had so much to do with my lifelong appreciation of the woods.

I can't say that my family ever tried to make their own maple syrup on the dairy farm I spent much of my early life on but as a 5 year old I experienced maple sugaring for the first time in Mrs. Bell's kindergarten class at Hamilton Avenue Elementary School in Warwick, NY in 1968. The school itself has been re-purposed as a community center ( my own Eagle Scout project involved repairing and painting two classrooms on the second floor for that purpose way back when), but many of the ancient maples on the property tapped during the spring of 1968 still stand.

Sometime during those important six weeks of sap harvesting Mrs. Bell's class filed out with the other kindergarten classes to an area on the hill above the school where an earlier version of the school had once stood before it was destroyed by fire in the 1920s; its brick footprint is still visible in the grass. Here were two rows of hardwoods that had once marked the entrance to the largely forgotten school. We stood giddily watching as one of the custodians drilled out a hole with a brace and tapped a metal spout in for the benefit of my class. The drips of the seemingly clear liquid were almost immediate as I recall. I only observed recently that sap has a faint amber hue to it when it comes from the tree.

Fortunately, for our own health, we didn't have to wait in the chilly morning air for the metal can that was attached to a hook under the spout to fill to a desirable level. Many of the nearby maples had already been tapped days before, their metal pails filled, and a large quantity of sap brought to the cafeteria kitchen to begin the process of boiling it into syrup long before we paraded out to witness the demonstrational tapping that morning. After we experienced the resounding tap, tap, tap of the sap from the maple, we filed back into school to the cafeteria to witness steam billowing out of the enormous stainless steel pots in the kitchen, and this fact makes me realize now how long ago that really was because they carried out that whole process on gas fueled stoves that taxpayers were undoubtedly footing the bill for.

The expense of gas heat might have been an issue to a few then but today it would simply be cost prohibitive. Accessibility to a wood burning stove makes the process affordable and possible for me today. It's no wonder syrup has practically doubled in cost this year because most commercial makers use more expensive fuels than wood to make their syrup. After my kindergarten class gave their requisite number of oohs and ahs we had a pancake breakfast with homemade, or rather school-made syrup. It was delicious.

It's funny how experiences like that stick with you. Many of our memories today are so often the result of a remembrance of a photograph or something that we experienced second-hand via television, so it is the recorded image or even the experience of someone else shared with us that becomes a large part of our memories rather than the pure and first-hand types of experiences like witnessing a tree tapping and eventually tasting the syrup that originated from it, or lacing on a pair of skates and spending several afternoons falling and getting back up to learn to skate rather than spending that same time watching Olympic hopefuls go through their practiced infinitum skate routines. That maple sugaring experience at Hamilton Avenue is one of my earliest and purest recollections because no one to my knowledge ever snapped a photo that day or has ever mentioned it to me in the four plus decades since. I have thought about it treasuring it for its affirmation of my somewhat romanticized notion of growing up in a small town named Warwick.

My stab at making syrup here in Eddington, ME has much to do with my recent work with the Curran Homestead Living history Farm and Museum in Orrington, ME. Since taking on a volunteer directorship in September, 2008, I have spent much time learning how to do and doing as was done. Most recently, I harvested block ice out on the 200 acre large Fields Pond, which lay directly across from the main house and barns, using hand tools as well as contributing to our recent annual Maple Syrup and Irish celebration where we cooked sap on a well-used Wood & Bishop stove in our formally designated "Sugar Shack" using a stainless steel evaporator.

Bob Croce, a board member of the farm and museum, handled the maple syrup demonstration, as he has done now for eighteen years. He taps trees on his own property near Dedham and cooks up some samples of varying amber color to have on hand for visitors to the annual celebration. He cooks up 10 gallons of the sap during the day of the event; consequently, he has been one of my main sources of information for going ahead and doing the process on my own.

Gabe and I tapped a number of trees that by the last week of March were already past their prime as far as sap getting goes; the holes I drilled for those were bone dry when I pulled out the brace bit. We found 3 or 4 trees that produced the majority of sap we collected, and these trees included one ancient maple that is close to the edge of Jarvis Gore Drive. It, I suspect, is one of the trees that had survived from those trees that long ago lined the entirety of the road from the Old Eddington Road (Rt.9) intersection along Jarvis Gore in old photographs from the late nineteenth century. New Englanders often planted a pair of sugar maples in the front of their houses in the old days, and the two identical in size maples near my own house may be from the Unitarian Universalist parsonage that was originally on the site of my house (1879) in the 1850s and before.

We collected roughly 9-10 gallons of sap using old galvanized tin pails and fitted lids borrowed from The Curran Homestead. I filtered the sap thoughly through four coffee filters set inside of a metal collander. There were moths, bits of bark, and dry spagnum in the sap water before filtering it. We boiled the sap down in some of my late grandmother's Presto Pressure cookers (circa 1950s) on top of our wood stove in the living room. It was a fairly simple process that required a little vigiliance to avoid burning the sap down to nothing and scalding the pot. For the most part, I just set the sap on the stove and checked it when I stoked the fire. I got about 10-11 ounces of dark amber syrup for my efforts that tastes just like the good stuff. I plan on keeping the syrup under lock and key until I can make a pancake and waffle breakfast with it this summer when some of my family comes up to Maine to visit. It will be an exercise in restraint to save the syrup that long; we love pancakes and waffles at our house.

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