December 17 is National Maple Syrup Day, a chance to celebrate the sweet goodness of maple syrup, maple sugar, maple candy, and other products made from the sap of the sugar maple.
The indigenous peoples of North America were making maple syrup long before the Europeans arrived. We don’t have precise historical records of when they might have started using it, but many Native American tribes have legends explaining their use of maple sweeteners. One common story has a piece of meat being cooked in maple sap instead of water, and everyone being delighted with the result. In some Native cuisines, maple syrup and sugar were used as a generic seasoning, much as we might use salt today.
The sap from the maple tree has to be concentrated significantly before it can be used as a sweetener; it takes between 20 and 50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. That amount can vary widely from year to year, from tree to tree, even from day to day, based on the weather during the previous year. The earliest techniques for concentrating sap involved either heat—dropping hot cooking stones into a bucket of sap to boil off the excess water—or cold—leaving the buckets outside overnight, then removing the layer of ice that had formed in the morning.
When Europeans began to arrive in North America, they quickly adopted maple sweeteners. Maple was the primary sources of sugar in the 17th and 18th centuries, since cane sugar had to be imported from the West Indies and was very expensive. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that cane sugar replaced maple as the primary source of sugar in the United States. During the Civil War, the North continued to rely more heavily on maple, because cane sugar and molasses were produced mostly in the Confederate states. Maple also became important during World War II, when sugar and other food was rationed; families in the northeast were encouraged to use maple to sweeten their foods to stretch their sugar rations.
There have been technological improvements to the syrup making process over the years, but the basics remain the same. A small spigot is tapped into the tree (2 or even 3 taps might be placed in a larger tree), and the sap drips from that spigot; it’s collected and boiled to get rid of the excess water. The proper amount of boiling falls into a narrow range. Boil-off too much water and the syrup will crystallize into maple sugar; boil off too little water, and the syrup will be watery, less sweet, and more prone to spoilage.
Trees can be tapped beginning when they are 30 or 40 years old, though new developments are allowing for the tapping of younger trees. The average tree produces 10 to 15 gallons of sap each year; that could produce anywhere from 3 cups to 3 quarts of syrup. The sugaring season lasts from 4 to 8 weeks, depending on the weather, as winter turns to spring. Cold nights and mild days are the most productive; once it gets too warm, the taste of the sap changes and it’s no longer useful for syrup making.
Gathering the sap can be a backbreaking process. Traditionally, each spigot is designed in such a way that a pail can be hung from it, and the syrup maker had to hike through the snowy forest, manually collecting the sap from each tree and hauling it back to the boiling apparatus. Beginning in the 1970s, plastic tubing systems were introduced, and they are now standard in the largest sugaring operations.
The United States produced most of the world’s maple syrup until the 1930s, but in the last half of the 20th century, the industry grew rapidly in Canada. More than 80% of the world’s syrup is now produced in Canada, most of that from Quebec. The maple tree has become a traditional emblem of Canada, and the country’s flag famously depicts a red maple leaf.
The largest producer of maple syrup in the United States is Vermont, which makes about 5% of the world’s syrup. When the United States Mint produced a series of quarters highlighting each of the states between 1999 and 2008, the Vermont quarter featured a scene of sap collection.
Maples aren’t the only trees from which sweeteners can be made. In parts of eastern Russia, western Canada, and Alaska, birch syrup is made. It takes 3-5 times as much sap to make as maple syrup does, and it is a much smaller industry.
Children’s natural fondness for sweets means that they often love maple syrup, and “how it’s made” material is often made for children. But adults can learn the basics from the same sources. A 6-minue segment of the Canadian children’s TV show Making Stuff explains syrup making, as does Laurie Lazzaro Knowlton’s picture book Maple Syrup from the Sugarhouse (e-book | print). Maple is also at the center of a pair of children’s alphabet books; Michael Ulmer’s M Is for Maple (e-book) is a Canadian alphabet, and Cynthia Furlong Reynolds’s M Is for Maple Syrup (e-book) offers a Vermont alphabet.
For the adult audience, Tim Herd’s Maple Sugar (e-book), Susan Carol Hauser’s Wild Sugar (e-book), and Robb Turner & Jessica Carbone’s The Crown Maple Guide to Maple Syrup (e-book) explain the process of making syrup; all three books also include recipes. Douglas Whynott’s The Sugar Season (e-book | print) goes inside the business, following one large sugarmaker through a year in the industry.
Ken Haedrich’s Maple Syrup Cookbook (e-book | print) offers more than 100 recipes. And as society becomes more concerned about the effects of refined sugar, Shauna Sever’s Real Sweet (e-book | print) and Marisa McClellan’s Naturally Sweet Food in Jars (e-book) offer recipes built around maple and other unrefined sweeteners.
Today, we frequently associate maple syrup with breakfast, as something to be drizzled (or poured in great gobs, depending on your taste) over pancakes and waffles. If you’re in need of a base for your maple syrup, you might enjoy the pancake and waffle cookbooks by Lou Seibert Pappas (e-book | print) or America’s Test Kitchen (e-book).
And as we have so often discovered over the years of writing these blog posts, for every business, there is a series of murder mysteries. Emily James is the author of the Maple Syrup Mysteries series; cozies in which a stressed-out lawyer retires to run her family’s maple syrup business. The series begins with A Sticky Inheritance (e-audio).
Also This Week
December 18, 1879
Paul Klee was born. Klee was a Swiss artist who worked in a variety of media—oil paint, watercolor, etchings, collage, pastels, and others. He was always a skilled draftsman, but it wasn’t until he was in his mid-30s that he felt he had begun to understand how to use color well. Overviews of his work are available in print and e-book formats. Several composers have written works inspired by Klee’s abstract paintings, including David Diamond, Gunther Schuller, and Jim McNeely.
December 20, 1939
Kim Weston was born. Weston was a Motown singer in the mid-1960s. Her biggest solo hits were “Helpless” and “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While),” and she recorded a successful duets album with Marvin Gaye, featuring “It Takes Two.” Weston left Motown in 1967 in a dispute over royalties; she recorded a few albums for other labels, but never managed to duplicate her early success. The highlights of her career are gathered on Greatest Hits and Rare Classics.
December 20, 1969
Alain de Botton was born. He is a writer and philosopher whose principal subject is the connection of philosophy to modern life, a theme he explores through an eclectic assortment of subjects. His titles are mostly self-explanatory: A Week at the Airport (e-book | print), Status Anxiety (e-book | e-audio | print), Religion for Atheists (e-book | print). He has also written two novels, On Love (e-book | print) and The Course of Love (e-book | e-audio | print).
December 21, 1969
Julie Delpy was born. Delpy is a French-American actress, director, and writer whose career began as a child actress in French films. In America, her best-known films are Richard Linklater’s romantic trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, which follow a couple through twenty years of their relationship. She has also written, directed, and starred in the romantic comedies 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York.