A long-time friend from Bovina, NY recently brought me a treasure of a gift: pure locally made maple syrup. As I gathered my maple syrup thoughts this morning, I realized how little I know about its origins, so engaged on an interesting little search.
Ever wondered who first made maple syrup, that divine sweetener that has long been my absolute favorite? Although we have no written documentation for today’s scholars, there are many interesting stories and all seem to circle back to our Native American ancestors. I found the following tale in several places and reproduce it here from the Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association:
Legend has it that the first maple syrup maker was an Iroquois woman, the wife of Chief Woksis. One late-winter morning, the story goes, the chief headed out on one of his hunts, but not before yanking his tomahawk from the tree where he’d thrown it the night before. On this particular day the weather turned quite warm, causing the tree’s sap to run and fill a container standing near the trunk. The woman spied the vessel and, thinking it was plain water, cooked their evening meal in it. The boiling that ensued turned the sap to syrup, flavoring the chief’s meal as never before. And thus began the tradition of making maple syrup.
It certainly matched my experience: maple water, or sap, from sugar maple trees begins to flow during a brief window of time between late winter and early spring, when days are warming up and nights are still cold. I well remember a day each year, often in March, when I lived on our Catskill Mountain farm in the mid-1970s, when I’d step outside the farmhouse into a still-cool, slightly-humid morning and well-embedded knowledge in my bones by then, told me that maple syrup season had arrived. This fact was a sweet lift from the long Catskill winter and always made me smile.
My husband, Don, and his father, Ed, would tap the numerous sugar maples on the farm, and fasten sap buckets. When sap filled the buckets, the men fastened a wooden wagon,the gathering tank on it, onto the back of the old John Deere tractor. After gathering sap from the buckets into the tank, they’d putt-putt down to the old sap house below the house that was nestled by the stone-wall fence above the stream.
Smoke soon puffed from the stovepipe chimney where, inside the humid, sweet-smelling sap house, a wood fire was boiling down the sap to the right temperature. Forty gallons of sap was needed to make one gallon, a huge amount for our small operation. In our best year, I remember, we made fifty gallons.
Maple-syrup making was one of the many ways in which we lived so connected to the land for our food. It was part of the magic of living in rural America that I have always cherished and held close to my heart.
And, so, when I opened my bottle of pure maple syrup this morning, I slid back through decades to a rich time in my life for which I’ve always been profoundly grateful, a time when I learned so much that I’d never had known if I’d remained a city girl.
I also feel gratitude today for my friend, Jan; for this sumptuous syrup; for a tiny community and the people in it who carry on this timeless tradition today; for the Iroquois woman–if legend is accurate–who inadvertently discovered the secret within maple sap; and for the sugar maple trees of the northeast, so generous in their gift to us. May we each respect and appreciate the wonder and integrity of this sweet earth we all live upon.