The Sticky, Sweet History of Making Maple Syrup

Dale Carson
3/3/13

Did you know that cows can get drunk? I had no idea, until I started reading more about maple syrup and sugar. 

Apparently, farmers with both cows and sugar maples keep them as far away from each other as possible. Grazing cows will destroy saplings and get drunk on fermenting sap. It's not really funny, but it's funny. I wonder if moose do, too, or squirrels, since they both like to nibble on maple twigs. Squirrels bite the twigs at their base and gnaw holes in the bark, which lets the sap out. They know it freezes in the night, so they come back to eat it in the morning. The whole thing about flowing maple sap results from the climate—long cool temperatures below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. This up and down temperature acts like a pump, and few places in the world have this perfect climate. 

When colonists introduced maple syrup to Europe, they were very excited about the delightful sweet the Native Americans had shared with them. (And, well, they should be, thank you very much.) Many Europeans planted sugar maples and were sorely disappointed as was Thomas Jefferson who planted many trees at his Virginia plantation in 1791. They planted the right trees but they didn’t have the right climate. The length of the season varies year to year and generally goes from mid-February to mid-April, yet can run from five days to six weeks, depending on conditions. Last year, 2012, was not a good year commercially, this year so far promises to be much better. Because of this climate necessity, maple sugar and syrup are the only foods exclusive to North America. Maple sugar and syrup are harvested mainly in Canada and New York, with the number one producer being the state of Vermont. Non-indigenous settlers in New England valued maple sugar cakes as currency for a long time. After 1830, bees and honey production, plus trade ships from the south and the West Indies, brought cane sugar and molasses into the mix. However, maple as a major sweetener remained as such until the end of the 1800s because New Englanders disapproved of the slave labor used to produce sugar and molasses.

My son made maple syrup two years ago and it was quite good. We have many sugar maples on this property. I was surprised to learn it takes a tree 35-60 years to be tappable. I don’t think we’ll be going into business anytime soon, since it takes 500 trees to make such a business a commercial success. There is also a lot of math involved in this endeavor; for example, in the beginning of the season it takes 20 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Then the ratio goes up to 50 gallons of sap by the end of the season. Pure maple syrup has four grades of quality. Fancy Grade, Grade A, Grade B, then the lowest, Grade C, just used for cooking. The pancake syrup in regular supermarkets is nearly 90 percent corn syrup with chemically made maple flavoring. If you want the pleasure of the real thing, best to buy it locally at farmers markets.

Good Maple Barbeque Sauce

1 cup REAL maple syrup

1 cup fine chopped onion

1 cup ketchup

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

¼ cup light brown sugar, packed firm

¼ cup lemon or orange juice

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon Worcestershire

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon chili sauce

Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to simmer for 15 minutes.

Cool before pouring into a blender and then process until smooth. Apply to burgers, ribs, chicken or other meat about 15 to 20 minutes before done. Sugars of any sort tend to burn, so watch carefully. Keep some sauce aside for the table as a dipping sauce.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.

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