When I first encountered the term “sugar snow” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, I had no idea what it meant, but how delicious it sounded! Living in the hot plains of West Bengal, I had never known the kind of snow that blanketed the deep woods of Wisconsin, and I was enchanted by it. Again and again I pored over the story of Grandpa’s maple-sugaring work party and the feast and dance that followed, in which Ma got to wear her dark-green “delaine,” Grandma jigged the socks off Uncle George accompanied by Pa’s tireless fiddle-playing, and the children were given pats of crumbly maple sugar made at just the right moment before the syrup started “graining.”
By the time I had a child of my own, just about the age Laura had been in that story, we were living in Winchendon, a town known for its unspoiled woods and cold, snowy weather. I read Nikhil all the Little House books but his favorite, not surprisingly, was Farmer Boy, the one book in the series in which the protagonist was a boy—Almanzo Wilder, who grew up, not in the American Midwest, but on a farm in upstate New York, and was to marry Laura Ingalls when he became a man. We saw to it that most of the rural pastimes that Almanzo and his siblings enjoyed as children, Nikhil and Eric did too in their respective seasons, from apple cidering, to skating on the frozen pond in winter, to maple sugaring.
Andrew, a walking Foxfire Book and Whole Earth Catalog, took the lead in the process. Having grown up and worked on a New England farm himself, he always seemed to know just about everything there was to know about the rural arts (despite having been born in New York City). When the time was right he identified the best maple trees in a reasonable radius of the farmhouse, taking four-year-old Nikhil with him to test the sweetness of the sap. Since there weren’t quite enough sugar maples on the property to ensure a decent yield of syrup, he tapped a number of red (or swamp) maples as well. Their sap was essentially the same as that in the sugar maples, except it was thinner; to make just one gallon of precious dark amber maple syrup, it would take fully forty gallons of fresh sap from a red maple, as against just twenty gallons from a sugar maple.
Andrew picked up the metal taps from Belletete’s Hardware in Winchendon, but rather than using the wooden pails Grandpa had made in the Little House books or the traditional metal cans seen throughout New England, he created his own buckets by cutting down one-gallon plastic milk jugs. He built a makeshift sugar shack out back, near the entrance to the woods, and he and the boys made daily rounds of all the tapped trees to collect the cartons and stockpile them in the shack, packed in snow, until it was time to build a fire and start syruping. Some of the cartons made their way into the farmhouse kitchen, where we mixed the fresh sap with seltzer water to create a delicate-tasting maple soda—which, in true American entrepreneurian fashion, the guys fantasized about mass-producing and marketing to make their fortunes.
When Nikhil was five, we moved from sixty acres in Winchendon to a less-than-half-acre suburban plot in this New England college town. We were eager to prove to him, and perhaps to ourselves as well, that we could still live the rural homesteaders’ life, so Andrew set about tapping the maple trees on the property and firing up the stainless-steel vat in the kiln house behind my in-laws’ house next door. Funnily enough, a fraction of the number of trees we had tapped in Winchendon yielded almost as much maple syrup, because all these were sugar, rather than swamp maples. Andrew would boil down the sap to a manageable volume out in the kiln house, and then bring it into the kitchen to finish the process in our largest pots. We were able to make enough syrup to meet our own needs, to soak stacks of Sunday pancakes lavishly for a whole year and to give as Christmas presents to the whole family besides.
We haven’t made our own syrup for twenty years now. The kiln house out back is collapsing, and these days all our maple trees produce are mountains of coppery-gold leaves in the fall, enough to use on the compost pile all year round. But I sure know, and from first-hand experience, what a sugar snow is. Every year, when the daytime temperatures begin to rise consistently above freezing while the night-time temperatures still reliably fall below it, when the sap starts flowing in the long-established stands of maples around town, and the old-timers put in their taps and hang out their buckets again, I feel all warm inside in the knowledge that I too have participated in this quintessentially American ritual; and that my son has actually lived it rather than just reading about it, prancing fawn-like through the late-winter snow, to suck the sap straight from the tree.