Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Sticky Situation

It’s about that time of year again, time to make maple syrup. Have any of you readers out there tried making maple syrup before? I have. I guess I always was sort of a food purist, perhaps it is more like I’ve always been curious to see whether I could follow some of the old-timey traditional methods of making stuff at home, so it was only a matter of time before I tried my hand at making maple syrup. I remember I was about 15 years old or so, and I had talked to a few of the older folks in the neighborhood about making syrup and they told me how it was done, though I didn’t let on that I was actually going to try my hand at it for fear of getting to much advice that would take the fun out of it.

I remember that I needed a spout to insert into the tree to drain the sugar water out, and I didn’t want to use metal or plastic pipe for a spout (which undoubtedly would have been the most convenient). No way, I was doing this the old fashioned way and I wanted a wooden spout. I hunted the woods for hours looking for a straight stick about an inch wide, then using my pocket knife I split it open. I cleaned out the doty center of the stick and I had two little troughs with which to siphon away the sugar water from the tree. I did try my hand at hollowing out a whole stick but it was just too time consuming, so my idea worked well enough.

I then took Dad’s wood bore and after scouting out the biggest sugar maple trees behind our house on the hillside, I took boring holes into the trees. I then inserted my little wooden “pipe troughs” into the holes, and had then dripping down into my catchment containers. After waiting a few minutes, I saw the first few droplets of sugar water trying to run down into my waiting mason jar. (Yes, mason jar…this was a small time operation!). I soon learned through trial and error that if I slanted my bored hole slightly upward, the sap flowed out a little better. Also, I found that a little spot of chewing gum dammed up the excess sugar water and made the sap flow out my troughs a little better, as well as securing my troughs in the hole. I know I must have drilled 20 or so trees, and I had jars, cans, cups, buckets and pretty much anything else that would catch sugar water placed under nearly every maple tree on the hillside. This was about mid-morning, and as the day progressed and it got a little warmer, the sap started running faster. Some of them ran like a slow running faucet. Since my catchment containers were rather small, I nearly ran myself to death emptying them into my larger 5 gallon bucket which sat at the bottom of the hill. Eventually, I focused on the larger and more productive trees and abandoned operations at the small trees. After a few hours, my 5 gallon bucket was full of sweet tasting maple sap. It looked like water, had the consistency of water, but it had a slightly sweet taste. After getting what I believed would be aplenty maple sugar water, I gathered up my jars, cans, cups, etc. and placed a piece of clay mud into the bored holes of the tree to keep out moisture so as to prevent rot.

An old drawing of a maple sugar camp.

So with my 5-gallon bucket of maple sugar water in hand, I talked Mom into allowing me the use of her kitchen to boil down my syrup. She told me I could but that if I made a mess, I’d have to clean it up. So, using her big stockpot, I filled it about ¾ full with sugar water and started heating it. Soon it was at a boil, and I kept adding more sugar water to the pot as it evaporated away. It took several hours of this, but eventually the boiling liquid started turning the lightest shade of brown, and I just knew that soon I’d have syrup. I couldn’t help but sample my work frequently and it was starting to get slightly sweeter, but still nowhere near syrup. So my pot kept boiling and boiling, and it was clear that I’d get no more than a quart of syrup out of this, but that was still fine. Well, about the time my pot had about a quart of liquid in it, I tasted it again…nope, still very watery…so I had no choice but to keep boiling. Everyone had told me that it took a lot of sugar water to make syrup but I figured I had enough. I had thought about going back out to the trees to get more sap, but Mom told me that I’d better wait and see if my experiment worked before I went and made more work for myself. I’m sure it was more like she wanted me out of the kitchen since I’d been there for hours and hours. So I acquiesced and kept on a-boilin’!

It soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to have much maple syrup at all when I got it boiled down. As it was now, I had less than a cup full in the pot and it was still rather watery. I became resolved right then to continue and get whatever syrup I could out of this…no matter how little… since I had spent all day at it. When the liquid had nearly all boiled away, I tasted my treasured substance, and lo and behold, it was just right! I had made maple syrup! However, when I measured it out, I had just over 3 Tablespoons of it (out of 5 gallon of maple sugar water). Everyone got a good laugh over that, but let me tell you, that was good maple syrup. I shared it with everyone there, and we all got a taste, and everyone agreed that it was really good.

And that's when the real fun started. Mom came out to the kitchen and told me to clean up my mess. I’d been really careful not to make too much of one since I knew I’d be the one to have to clean it. I washed the stockpot, and wiped off the stove and table, took my bucket outside, and thought I had it all done, then Mom discovered something. She looked around and had noticed that there was a sticky film all over the walls and ceiling, over the cabinets and refrigerator, over the countertops and the ceiling fan, even on the window panes! It seems that while my maple sugar water was evaporating, the steam had miniscule amounts of sugar in it, and it had coated everything in the kitchen. Hot, soapy water was the only thing that would cut the stickiness, and Mom said we had to clean the whole kitchen (yes, she helped!). She really didn’t say too much to me, probably because if she started she wouldn’t have been able to stop! It was way up into the night before we got the remnants of my first and only ill-fated attempt at making my own maple syrup. So for the love of God and all that is Holy, if you decide to make your own homemade maple syrup, take my advice and do it someplace other than your mother’s kitchen. I old guess the old timers had a reason for making sugar camps after all!


Granny Sue said...

Matthew,I had the same experience! I tapped about 20 trees, walked all over these hills collecting the sap and started boiling. And boiling. And boiling. I ended up with so little I could not believe it. Fortunately I didn't have your sticky walls, though!

I tried it for several years, always with the same result. But there wre some good things---I got out and about in the woods in early February instead of holing up in the house, and the house smelled so good while all that boiling was going on.

I used elderberry stems for my spiles, they worked great. I cut them, ran a wire coathanger through them to hollow them out, and split them in two to make a little trough. It was fascinating to me, a girl raised in town, to learn that I could use one natural thing to do something else and I've never forgotten how self-sufficient that made me feel. I was about 24 then, and it's been over 30 years, but I remember vividly the pleasure of collecting the sap and walking the snowy trails.

Anonymous said...

good stories! I sure did enjoy the story and the comment.

My mother lived in West Virginia back around 1920 - 1928 or 29. I have relatives there now. It seems like home, tho I don't visit near often enough. Keep on writing!

Anonymous said...

Dee from Tennessee

Great story!!

Farm Girl said...

I liked your story of making maple syrup in the kitchen.

We have several maple trees here in our yard and about a dozen or so in our woods. Six or seven years ago, I thought it would be fun to try to make some syrup too. I went online and did some reading. Bought a few spouts at the local hardware store. Took a week off from work and we drilled holes and hammered in the spouts and waited. We tapped about 15 trees. Our woods are at the bottom of our 13 acres, so we carried the full 5 gallon buckets up the hill, twice a day! The first year I cooked the sap down on a tiny little wood stove. It worked but you had to keep it crammed with wood to keep the sap boiling. I went to a local restaurant supply store and purchased a 12x20x3 inch stainless steel pan. I would let it boil hard all day, gradually adding fresh sap, for about 3 days. I would let it sit overnight, covered, and start it boiling again, early the next morning and keep adding fresh sap. When it was nearing the syrup stage, (I used a candy thermometer) I would take it in the house and finish it where I had more heat control. We canned it in quart canning jars. We did this for 3 or four years. The most we ever made in one season was 3 gallons. It was a lot of work, but fun to do. The last year that we made syrup, my husband set up a small cast iron camp stove in the garage and hooked it up to a 100 gallon propane tank. We haven't made any for the last 3 years because my job wouldn't let me take a week off. But I would do it again in a heartbeat!