New England blogger friends recently asked, “Where have you two been?” Clearly, we have not been maintaining our writing cadence. “On a fascinating journey,” we remarked. Since last fall, we have been researching the origins New England food, which has taken us to libraries, bookstores, docks, museums, farms, root cellars, markets, and pantries across our six northeast states. We’ve met food historians, librarians, archivists, chefs, farmers, fishermen, family cooks, and various foodstuff purveyors, all of whom are helping us weave the strands of a fascinating story.
With books, journals, maps, menus, cooking instruments, and other regional food paraphernalia now festooning our home office, we realize how intertwined our New England history is with food. And it’s not all glamour either. History never is.
Though the New England food journey is deep and diverse, it helps us better understand who we are, where we came from, and why we’re willing to argue over such things as maple syrup, fried clams, pizza, oysters, whoopie pies, johnnycakes, scrod and beer. Stay tuned because we’ll be sharing our discoveries.
There are many common signs of spring in places where changes of season are clearly evident: flowers pushing up through the last patches of snow to reach the increasing sunshine; birds returning to nest; and frogs serenading from their vernal pools. Here in New England, we have a few more signs of spring: towns repairing potholes; rural cars tackling mud; schoolboys stripping down to shorts and tee-shirts on the first day over fifty degrees; and crowds returning to Fenway Park for Red Sox baseball. We also have a brief, rite of spring that provides lasting and sweet pleasure for the remainder of the year: maple sugaring.
Maple sugar season typically begins in March and lasts until early April. It begins when warm days follow cold nights and trigger the sap to flow or “run.” During this brief season, New England becomes host to many sugar shacks, which are small cabins where collected sap is boiled into maple syrup. When buds appear on the maple trees, these shacks quickly disappear as the sap ceases to flow. This entire ritual takes place quietly, often going unnoticed by most people, unless one is in the maple sugaring business or doing it as a hobby. It’s interesting to consider that this all started with the Native Americans. Little did we know – or anticipate – we’d be joining the world of maple sugaring and syrup production. And it was all by mistake.
The most compelling reason why we bought our 105 year old fixer-upper several years back stood outside our front door: a huge, beautiful and majestic 100 year old street maple, that we named “Big Bertha.” Though we heard rumors that the previous homeowners had tapped Big Bertha for syrup, we had become so busy that we neglected to follow up on our plan to continue their tradition of making syrup. This year – by accident – we had no choice but to try our hand at maple sugaring.
Last November, Big Bertha was maimed during the installation of a new waterline to our home. She lost part of a major limb as a result of the backhoe placement. This incident came as quite a shock, especially since the branch was removed without our consent. Bertha sustained an unfortunate injury, but it was better to lose a limb than to lose an entire tree. According to the contractor, we had been just minutes from losing her if the water line hadn’t been able to be snaked under the tree. Big Bertha sat right on top of the 105-year-old water line.
Big Bertha spent much of the winter resting and recuperating, blanketed by mountains of snow. But a few weeks back, the warm days brought her to tears, literally. She began crying from her wound. The constant weeping, though rather upsetting to us, led to the realization that her sap was running. Maple sugar season arrived when we realized her limb became a huge tap.
With pan in hand, we rushed out to collect the sap. Using what we captured, we made wonderful syrup. That old saying came to us: “When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.” We modified it for our purposes: “When a contractor wounds your maple tree in the fall, you make maple syrup in the spring.” It’s just a bit of consolation for the loss of her beautiful limb, which we will miss dearly when the leaves arrive. Perhaps it was her way of sharing this part of her long life with her new guardians.
So what was the result? Bertha’s syrup was delicious, the best we’ve ever had! As the sap boiled down to syrup, the aroma permeated the house. We were left with a nectar rich in maple flavor with stunning amber color and clarity. Fortunately, her wound should heal by next year, so we’ve decided to buy some real taps for next season and continue this New England tradition. Maple sugaring was a great experience, and a sweet way to end a long, bitter winter!
The only things missing are the pancakes and the French toast…