Nothing Sappy about Sugaring

One of my favorite essays the late Noel Perrin left behind was his short piece, “Maple Recipes for Simpletons.” It has been at least a decade since I read it, but I think of it often as the serious sugaring season approaches.
The basic premise of Perrin’s essay is pretty simple. Maple syrup is so delicious that it makes everything taste a little bit better. My favorite of his almost comically easy recipes? Soak good quality white bread in syrup to create what he calls a Vermont baklava.
Perrin was, of course, on to something. I use the stuff in everything from chili to fruit smoothies. It makes even usually inedible vegetables (I won’t name names) tolerable. It’s sort of like heroin, except you can love it and it won’t kill you in return.
One of my very favorite parts of the Champlain Valley Fair is the sugarhouse because every item of food in there begins or ends with maple syrup. It’s a crackhouse for people who view maple cream doughnuts as an integral part of the food pyramid. And based on its lines some evenings at the fair, there are a lot of folks like me who don’t make a distinction between five daily servings of fruits and vegetables and five maple cream doughnuts.
Yet outside of New England, people are willing to accept the pale substitutes for maple syrup known collectively as “breakfast syrup.” Sure, the stuff looks vaguely like maple syrup. And sometimes it’s even marketed as “maple tasting.” But it’s a far cry from the nectar that comes from a sap to syrup ratio of 40 to 1.
Of all the numbers that make Vermont special, that might be my favorite. People’s eyes grow a little wide in Florida or Arizona when I tell them it takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of maple syrup, and they are always suitably impressed.
And the sugaring season comes at exactly the right point in the calendar year. We’re all just starting to grow more than a little sick of shoveling snow off our roofs or pulling icicles off the dog. We’ve wrestled our small children into snowsuits one time too many, and put a tiny foot into a tiny boot that smells like bad cheese at least once too often. Even the most rabid skiers and skaters and riders among us are starting to sense that the longer days mean it’s time to transition to other ways to stave off cabin fever. Sure, there will be great spring skiing and riding ahead of us. But, like that first sugar run or those first aromatic steams from the sugarhouse, those days are a part of the transition from winter to spring (or, to be meteorologically accurate, to mud season).
Someday, I fear, Vermont won’t be a maple syrup leader. As the Earth’s temperature creeps higher, I wonder how many of our state’s millions of sugar maples will be here in a few hundred years or how long the annual sugaring season might last in a mere five or six decades. According to Dr. Tim Perkins at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, the sugaring season is already 10 percent shorter than it was 40 years ago. It has also shifted so that it begins earlier in the year. And that doesn’t simply make me worry for Vermont. I wouldn’t begrudge Quebec the cachet of having an exclusive hold on the world’s maple syrup.
What would disturb me is this: If someday Vermont isn’t a maple leader, it means that we have failed to stem global climate change. And that makes me worry for more than just all of us here in the Green Mountains.
It makes me worry for all of us here on this planet.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on Sunday, March 9, 2007.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “Nothing Sappy about Sugaring

  1. threegoodrats says:

    Maple syrup is my favorite condiment, and I accept no substitutes for the real thing. Of course being originally from Maine, I use Maine maple syrup, but I think my sentiment is the same.

  2. Neil says:

    I enjoyed your column. I sent it to my Mom. She said:

    “Ah, yes! Chris understands about maple syrup. I think it also promises spring. The begining of the growing season. The first crop of the season. Marie Cleary and I will go for pancakes and syrup next week.
    After all the rain and melting we’ve had I see grass in the next town in the fields but my own yard is still a foot deep in white. I do need to find signs of spring coming. Only the driveway is clear’ and even there I can find ice.
    (I liked the bit about children’s boots smelling like bad cheese.
    It’s true!! )

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