Maine Gold

March is sugar maple season, the beginning of mud season, and in Maine, the month when we have to make our own sunshine.

When my children were ages 2 and 6, I decided to make REAL maple syrup by tapping the sugar maple trees surrounding our home. Having made the fake stuff for years by boiling sugar, water, and maple flavoring, I thought it would be lovely to have genuine maple syrup on our pancakes.

With advice from a local farmer I set taps in several trees, collected the sap, and prepared to boil it down outside on an old stone fireplace.

The pile of hardwood used to heat our house was almost depleted, so the boys and I gathered branches deposited on the ground from winter. But it was not enough to sustain a fire for long. We – my two sons and a friend of the oldest – ventured over the wet snow across the field to a large stand of trees. The boys picked the driest wood sitting on top of the receding snow, while I picked up larger limbs and broke them free from the frozen ground. We dragged armloads back to the fireplace. We crumpled newspaper, piled the sticks on top, and I struck a match. The mental image I had of us standing around the fire enjoying the warmth disappeared in a cloud of smoke that billowed out from the damp paper and wood.

Every few minutes the boys asked if the water had boiled and if we had maple syrup yet. They soon became bored, muddy, cold, and wet. I checked the fire before taking them inside for snacks and dry, non-smoky smelling clothes. Then I ran outside to throw a few more sticks on the fire and back inside to check on them. I sat them in front of the TV and looked outside. What if a spark flew and landed on the roof. I ran outside to check. The sap was finally boiling. I used some of the precious hardwood knowing it would burn longer and not send up dangerous sparks. Wondering what the two-year-old was into I ran inside to check. For the next two hours I dashed back and forth, finally recalling the farmer’s recommendation to finish the boiling process on the kitchen stove. I strained the sap through cheesecloth into a clean pot on the electric kitchen stove.

In the morning the house smelled like maple syrup. Thrilled with the idea of having real syrup, I made pancakes. My family loved it, but the taste was not what I expected. I think Aunt Jemima adds more maple flavoring and sugar than Mother Nature.

That week end my husband helped collect more wood and boil the sap outside. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. I made syrup for the next two weeks, and with each batch I tried to like it. To this day I prefer the fake stuff but have a good appreciation for the labor involved.
Every March my oldest son, Brad, who looks back on the experience with fond memories, takes his young family to the sugar houses to see how real maple syrup is made and for pancakes. I look for other creative endeavors to add a little sweetness to the month of March.

This story appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of the Maine Warmers’ e-Newsletter. Also offered in the newsletter are specials on Neck Warmers, Back Warmers, and Hand Warmers.