Every time I slather maple syrup on my pancakes, I can’t help but think what went into making it. I know from firsthand experience.
The main feature of the kitchen in our old farmhouse in Mogadore was an enormous fireplace which was at least four times the size of one you can find in most modern homes. The fireplace was originally built just before the Civil War. It was an outside fireplace, built to cook for the many farmhands that worked the property then. Over the years, the outdoor fireplace became an indoor one when the owners added a room to make that part of the house into their kitchen.
The house was built in 1812 with just four rooms: two upstairs as bedrooms and two downstairs as the living/dining room and kitchen. Every time there was an abundant harvest, the proprietors added another room so when we moved in, there were 13 rooms but an abundant harvest eluded us and prevented us from adding on.
On the property were several very large maple trees. Every February I toyed with the idea of tapping them and making maple syrup but I didn’t get around to it until February had come and gone. A visit to a feed store in Edinburg in Portage County turned my maple-syrup-making dream into reality when I spotted a box of spiles, which are tree-tapping spouts.
After I bought them, I had to try to figure out how to use them. The Internet would have come in handy but this was the mid-‘80s, so I had to research it the old fashioned way: I went to the library. It turned out to be fairly simple: Drill a hole in the maple tree, drive the spile into the hole, hang a clean bucket from the spout and wait for the tree to slowly trickle tree sap. Our maple trees were large enough that I could hang a couple of buckets per tree so I bought a 30-gallon trash barrel in which to store the sap.
The fireplace had kettle cranes or hangers built in to dangle pots and kettles over the fire for cooking, as was common in the mid-19th century. The idea is to boil the tree sap down until there’s nothing left but the sugary syrup. I don’t remember what the ratio is, but after collecting 30 gallons of sap, I was confident that I would have enough to get at least a gallon of syrup.At the time, I was the publisher of a magazine for which I traveled a great deal. I decided to start the sap-reduction process on a Friday because I had to be at the airport fairly early on Monday morning, and I thought three days was plenty of time to make the syrup. I sat in the rocking chair in front of the fireplace, filled the kettle with sap and built the fire hot enough to boil it. Most of the time it takes to make maple syrup is just waiting: waiting for the sap to collect, waiting for the sap to boil, adding more sap and waiting some more. This was a continuous process throughout the day, the evening and into the night.
Sometime early Sunday morning I realized that the boiling-down process was going slower than I had planned. And sometime late Sunday afternoon I realized too that I wouldn’t be able to boil down the entire 30 gallons of sap. That was also about the same time that my wife, Nancy, noticed that all of the wallpaper in the kitchen was curling off the wall.
Well, I couldn’t stop the process. I had come too far to quit. Sometime around 4 a.m. Monday morning, I decided that I had to shut things down. I let what sap I had boil down, poured the remaining syrup in a jar and headed upstairs to pack and head to the airport. Before I left I barely had time to taste my new syrup; the maple flavor was definitely there but also present was a strong, smoky taste.
The next weekend we made pancakes to use what amounted to about a half pint of smoky syrup. When the kids tasted it, they went to the fridge for the Mrs. Butterworth’s. I was the only one to eat the pancakes with the syrup because I had spent too much time making it to turn my nose up at it. The remainder of the syrup sat in the refrigerator for maybe six months before I finally gave up and threw it out. By then, it had gotten kind of moldy as had the remaining sap in the barrel.
I had always thought that real maple syrup was much too expensive compared to Mrs. Butterworth’s and others of that ilk in the grocery store. I now see why it costs so much; it’s the wallpaper that has to be figured into the cost. Don’t see any other way around it. Or maybe the next time I try making my own maple syrup, I’ll do like everyone else and boil it down outside. But the instructions I read didn’t mention anything about that.
Don Baker, Jr., Publisher