Josna Rege

177. The Sugar Snow

In 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, Books, Childhood, Family, Food, India, Nature, Stories, United States on March 3, 2013 at 8:30 pm
photo by seedbud, leafandtwig.wordpress.com

photo courtesy of seedbud, leafandtwig.wordpress.com

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.

maple sugaring, Little House in the Big Woods (illustration, Garth Williams)

maple sugaring, Little House in the Big Woods (illustration, Garth Williams)

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.

P1020901We 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.

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  1. What a gorgeous final sentence, Josna; I read it again and again to savor it. And had to cut and paste it here. It makes me wish I had participated in this American ritual. It’s something I never did while living in Western Mass or have ever done! Even after so many years in this country. “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 at 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.”

    • Yikes, Sejal, I hadn’t realized that that last sentence was quite so long! I guess I got carried away with it. I’m glad you liked it. Thanks so much for commenting, and for quoting me back to myself 🙂 xo J

  2. What a marvellous ritual.I was fascinated by your post Josna. When tapping the trees do they simply hammer the “tap” in to the tree? Sugar snow – I’ll certainly remember that.

    • Thank you for your comment, Don. It is indeed a marvellous ritual. Maple syrup is very much a North American speciality, of course associated with Canada (whose flag waves a maple leaf), but in the U.S., specifically with the New England states (although of course trees are tapped all over the world–I think of palm trees in different parts of Africa to make palm wine).I’m glad you asked about the tapping process, because one wouldn’t want to damage the tree. The other day when we were taking the photo of the row of ancient maple trees with their buckets out for this season, Andrew pointed out to me the marks from previous years of taps. You use a drill, as in Garth Williams’ illustration, but don’t need to go in too deep. Here’s a video I found on Youtube where it is demonstrated by someone whose family has done this for generations:

      I also learned something about the term “sugar snow” just yesterday–after I’d written and posted my story. Apparently a sugar snow extends the season by slowing down the flow of sap with the cold nights. That I hadn’t realized until just now. THere’s a beautiful photo of a sugar snow here:
      http://dragonwood.org/2009/03/23/maple-cream-not-sugar-snow/
      Thanks again, J

  3. I never realized (though I’ve lived in New England since I was three) that you can tap any maple. Andrew is indeed an encyclopedic and industrustrious marvel. [In order to spell encyclopedic I had to remember a song Jiminy Cricket sang on the Mickey Mouse Show!] And I agree your last sentence is beautiful.

    • I’ve found that song, Ann! Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cy2jWJtO3lE
      Yes, Andrew is a mine of information. Others might have given up on sugaring in Winch because of the lack of sugar maples. I don’t know about the syrup potential of other kinds of maple trees, though, only the swamp, or red, maples.
      Hearing from you always puts a smile of my face. Lots of love, and hope you’ve all been weathering the storms okay. Here’s to almost-Spring! x J

  4. Lovely story! I remember going with my grandparents to a maple festival in Chardon, Ohio.
    I think that was the name. We were little and just watched them tap the trees, boil the syrup and then we got to taste the syrup on our pancakes, as well as eat maple candy.
    I have always loved real Maple syrup and our Aunt Dit sent it to us for years from her home in Brattleboro, Vermont. My ex husband made fun of me always wanting the real thing, but I have maintained that there is nothing else to compare with that wonderful flavor!
    Thanks for re-awakening the memory!

    • Marianne, I learn new things about your life all the time! I didn’t know that you had visited your grandparents as a child, or that you had been to Ohio. You are quite right about needing to have the real thing; it completely ruins a stack of pancakes to pour that fake corn-syrupy stuff over it. My friend Julie used to carry a little bottle of maple syrup in her pocketbook to press into service when she was out at a restaurant that didn’t have the real stuff. If I’d have known, I could have been sending it to you all these years, though now I wonder if you need it, now that Trader Joe’s carries it. x J

  5. Sweet story, and very easy to picture the boys, young and old traipsing about in the woods collecting sap. Although I grew up with the fake stuff (why?! after my dad’s having grown up with Nova Scotian genuine??!! Oh, the 1950’s…) we were occasional observers/helpers of my dad’s later life interest in tapping his maples in New Hampshire. Mostly swamp, and pored into salad dressing bottles, but good!

    • Jude, you’ve figured out how to post a comment online—thanks! Yes, isn’t is strange how, if you haven’t grown up with the genuine article, you might even come to prefer the fake? When we first moved to the States I found maple syrup a bit too strong-tasting, and my mother never took to it, but now I love it. Even now, when I make crêpes (the pancakes I grew up with), I have mine with lemon and sugar, although the guys douse theirs with maple syrup. Salad dressing bottles would be just right for maple syrup; it’s so satisfying to have a stock of it to keep you in pancakes all year round.

  6. Marianne: I grew up in Ohio and remember a school trip to the sugar house in Chardon! Such a surprise to see it mentioned here! I agree completely about pure syrup; the corn syrup concoctions just don’t make it.

    Josna, evocative as always. I hate to admit that I’ve never personally tapped a tree, although I’ve spent most of my life in places where maple syrup was commonly made. I’ve eaten my share of seasonal pancakes, though. It’s wonderful you were both so attentive to making sure that Nikhil had these experiences — acculturation at its best.

    • Marianne, meet Sarah; Sarah, Marianne. I love these virtual introductions! How amazing that both of you have shared a maple sugaring experience in Chardon, Ohio (which I have just looked up and found to be the “center of Ohio’s maple syrup industry as well as the center of the State’s snowbelt” and “home to the Geauga County Maple Festival.” Whad’ya know?! And it’s just outside Cleveland; is that where you grew up, Sarah? (BTW, do you know Pete Townshend’s love song to Cleveland? Check it out–I love it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUASUTR8Nv0)

      Sarah, I’m not a natural lover of the cold, but somehow managed to gear myself up and join the others in braving the elements during those Winchendon winters. Now Nikhil loves the snow and thinks nothing of the cold. Since Winchendon regularly topped the list of Massachusetts towns for snowfall, I would have been pretty miserable for the seven years we lived there if I hadn’t determined to enjoy it. Thanks so much for your comments.

  7. A beautiful story. Thank you for letting me be a part of it.

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