Sweet: The History, Craft & Cookery of Maple Syrup

Feature Stories Spring 2012 Issue

Sweet: The History, Craft & Cookery of Maple Syrup

By Terese Allen | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

What does Wisconsin “taste” like? If you had to name one foodstuff that best reflects our geography, climate, history and culture, don’t answer “beer,” “brats,” or “cheese.” These may be the state’s most recognizable culinary icons, but they can’t outdo maple syrup in this contest. Maple syrup is ours in even deeper ways than those previously mentioned transplants from Europe. It’s a deeply beloved indigenous ingredient that permeates our history, seasons our cooking and shapes our cultural psyche.

Myth has it that granulated maple sugar—not syrup— is what came out of maple trees originally. According to Menominee lore, maple sugar was a source of concern to the tribal hero named Manabush. He worried that his tribe would grow lazy if obtaining such sweetness took too little effort. So he turned the sugar into a liquid. After that the trees had to be tapped and the flowing sap collected and tediously boiled with hot stones in birchbark containers. Then the people had to strain the thickened sap, heat it again, and work it with wooden paddles until it crystallized. Finally they packed the maple sugar into containers for storage.

No chance of laziness there.

Beyond the considerable labor of processing maple sap into sugar, American Indians also had to contend with the weather (more of Manabush’s doing, perhaps?). You see, the clear mixture of water, sugar and nutrients that constitutes maple sap flows only under very particular meteorological conditions and for just a few short weeks a year. To maximize the yield, ancient tribes would have had to work very hard indeed, for sap flows efficiently only on sunny days with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, and nights in the 20s and teens. (It’s this interplay of warm days and cold nights that causes maple trees to swell and shrink slightly, forcing sap out of the tap holes.)

As soon as the sap was on the move, so were the tribes. They hauled food and shelter supplies, along with sap-making equipment, to their sugaring camps. Once there they worked quickly, for unprocessed sap can go bad within a day or two. What’s more, given Wisconsin’s fickle weather patterns, there was no knowing whether a maple run would be long or short. Maple season may have been the busiest time of the year for Wisconsin’s legendarily diligent tribes.

The effort was worth it, of course. Wisconsin Indians savored maple sugar and syrup in many kinds of dishes. They used maple sugar almost like salt (which they did not have) to season soups, stews, vegetables, grains, fruits, meats and fish. They made a kind of wild rice pudding with dried blueberries and maple syrup, and they fermented syrup into vinegar to flavor venison. Boiled sap became a taffy-like “snow candy” when poured onto fallen snow. Another sweet treat was sugar cones, shaped in diminutive bark containers or duck’s bills.

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