It’s that time of year. The sap is running and the buckets and tanks are filling. Backyard syrup makers large and small have been taking advantage of the recent sugaring weather to fire their arches and settle into the ancient and accepted rite of watching the boil.
Whatever you call it – a sugar party, sugaring-off, maple days – people will gather this weekend in old sugar shacks across Upstate New York around rising steam for one of the great revelries of the season.
You can guarantee there will be food. Pancakes and sweet breads and coffee sweetened with syrup (and maybe a little nip to get the day started right). There’ll be sausage or maybe a pork loin, and probably a nice smoked fish caught before the ice went out. There’ll be jack-wax on snow in bare hands. Syrup and hot dogs.
There’ll be jokes, and kids and stories of seasons past. That time Mike, in his cups at an early hour, nearly tottered into the pan. Voices raised about wood-splitting competitions. There will be line tightening and bucket gathering, temperature taking and fire stoking. Standing around a steaming pan of sap there will be quiet talk and shuffling feet. The occasional “it’s really boilin’ now” and “it’s gettin’ there” – the poetry of the sugar maker.
There’ll be scientific discussions. Great debates on the efficacy of only-dreamed-of labor saving contraptions. Long back-and-forths over sugar content, hydrometers and hydraulics; the relative merits of the gravity feed and vacuum pressure; and boisterous battles over the BTUs of the wood supply.
Boiling maple syrup is as much science as it is art of story-telling, sticky sweet poetics, and sittin’ round the steam.
Photo: Mike Todriff of Chestertown fires a vintage sugar boiler (photo by Shannon Houlihan).