Not just another sap in the woods

As I travel around this great country, I am continually impressed by how many otherwise intelligent people presume that our little state is actually a city somewhere near Albany, N.Y. Or they know that Vermont is indeed a state, but all they can say for certain is that it’s somewhere near Canada — which, of course, it is, but for a lot of these folks it’s clear that Brazil is somewhere near Canada, too.
There is serious alarm among some of our national movers and thinkers that we are falling way behind the rest of the world in math and science, but it is increasingly evident that we can add geography to that list, as well.
Periodically, of course, a Vermonter will do something that captures the country’s fancy, and people briefly will ponder where we are on the planet. A governor will make a serious run at the presidency. A snowboarder will take a silver medal at the Olympics. Will and Grace or Rachel and Ross will leave Manhattan for a romantic weekend at a bed-and-breakfast here.
The one thing that everyone knows for sure about us, however, is this: We produce maple syrup. Someone in South Carolina might mistake us for New Hampshire and presume that we have a seacoast or (once) an Old Man of the Mountain. But it seems to me that we have the monopoly on maple syrup. Last year we produced almost 400,000 gallons of maple syrup, or a third of the entire U.S. production.
To put that in perspective, Vermont sugar makers thus boiled somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 million (yes, million) gallons of sap.
And to put that in perspective, imagine a lake made entirely of maple sap the size of Lake Champlain. (OK, that is a completely ridiculous exaggeration. Lake Champlain has roughly 6.8 trillion gallons of water, plus phosphorus, zebra mussels, and — maybe — a sea monster named Champ. So instead simply imagine a really big pond made entirely of maple sap. Or, perhaps, Horatio Sanz.) I personally think it’s not all bad to be a state known largely for maple syrup. Oh, sometimes I wish it weren’t such a commodity, and people viewed it more like fine wine. Imagine, for example, if each sugarhouse was like a vineyard with its own label and cachet. We could have maple syrup tasting tours, in which visitors compared the Grade A Dark Amber boiled by the Twin Maple Sugar Works in Lincoln with the same grade produced by Two Old Saps Sugar Works in Bristol. Would only the most sophisticated palates discern a difference? Probably. Would the packaging — the shape of the jug, whether it’s aluminum or plastic, the artwork — impact perceptions? Absolutely.
Next week the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association will be holding its fifth annual open house weekend, in which sugarhouses across the state will be offering visitors the chance to watch sap boil into syrup. Watching sap boil is a lot more interesting than watching water boil because it smells fantastic and there’s a raging fire underneath the evaporator. Little children, especially little children like me who are forced to live in the bodies of middle-aged men, love raging fires.
Now, will we ever get a popular buddy movie filmed here about tasting along the lines of the surprise 2004 hit, “Sideways?” Unlikely. Of course, even if by some miracle someone did want to make a movie about maple, it would be filmed in Canada. It’s not that they produce a lot more maple syrup than we do, (although they do). It’s not even the reality that U.S. filmmakers can stretch their budgets much further in Canada.
It’s the fact that Hollywood is a long way from Vermont, and I’m honestly not sure they could find us.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 19, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

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