FOR a while, ``bicoastal'' was an in word. It seemed to apply to most of the groups that make trends trendy: junior movie moguls, computer commuters from Cupertino to Route 128, N.Y.-to-L.A. fashion designers, TV network programmer-kings, sports lawyers, authors on the talk-show circuit, and assorted jet-set dilettantes. But bicoastal was probably a disinformation word. It implied that the people who count in American civilization are equally at home on either coast. It's particularly hard to convince anyone living on the Western littoral, however, that there's any good reason to go east -- except for a visit to relatives, an Ivy education, a trip to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, or possibly an Off Broadway show. And, oh yes, there's one other draw: maple syrup, and all of the Currier & Ivey League paraphernalia associated with it.
Two decades ago, when people who went from coast to coast were known as travelers, we first discovered the lure of maple syrup for Californians (which most of our relatives are). We were living in the Connecticut suburbs of New York. Not exactly Robert Frost terrain. Certainly nobody had a sugarhouse or practiced sugaring-off in Westport. But we had a grove of giant sugar maples in our yard. So . . . .
One thing that commuting to Manhattan by train does to its troops is make many of them long for bucolic moments. For some this leads only to outdoor gadgets. Fairfield County is notorious for the millions of dollars' worth of Paul Bunyan chain saws, revolving composters, and mini-tractors with full accessories sold to ad agency executives and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
For other commuter-escapists the bucolic road leads to back-to-nature pursuits. For me that meant throwing down Organic Gardening magazine one Saturday and getting out a hacksaw. Then sawing some short lengths of quarter-inch copper tubing at an angle to make a spout. Cutting a notch in the top of the tube. Putting a quarter-inch bit in the drill. Drilling upward-angling holes into the south side of half a dozen maples. Hanging six plastic beach pails on the notches in the pipes. Then watching with satisfaction as the sap began to drip.
Little did I suspect that before this antiquarian scene was ended I would feel like the sap.
Before purists start shaking their heads, let's get the lore of sugaring-off out of the way. To begin with, those pipes that tap the trees are known as ``spiles.'' And the first maple syrup was not made via spiles.
Conjecture has it that New England Indians discovered the treacle by accident. In the late winter, when many water sources are frozen, maple trees drip sap wherever a bough has broken. Indians collected the faintly sweet water and used it for drinking. And then for cooking. Some squaw -- probably distantly related to King Alfred, who burned the cakes, or James Watt, who dreamed by the steam kettle -- let some venison stew cook too long. And, voila! maple syrup.
Well, actually not voila! The liquid has to boil down by a ratio of something between 30 and 35 quarts of sap to one quart of syrup. And the whole process seems interminable if you don't have modern equipment -- such as plastic tubing leading straight from the trees to a collection vat, and a boiler-evaporator to speed the reducing process.
In the first place there's the matter of sap flow. Ideal conditions come in February and March when daytime temperatures are above freezing and nighttime temperatures below. You drill the tapholes on the south side of the tree to accentuate this factor.
Contrary to some tales, any species of maple will provide sweet sap. But the sugar maple gets its name because it's the most commonly used species in New England.
Enough lore. Back to Westport and the sap who patiently collected those plastic beach buckets, which never seemed to reach the quarter-full mark by the time he had to catch the commuter train each day. When the Saturday project ran over into weekdays it created a sexist problem. The most tedious part of the project -- boiling -- became what is euphemistically known as spouse work. And, lacking a professional evaporator, spouse had to conduct the boiling in an old roasting pan, placed on a picnic grill over a fire of fallen maple boughs.
The 35-to-1 reduction took countless hours. The fire had to be tended. Normal commerce stopped. There were alarums. For instance, when some rotten maple wood caused smoke, which curled over the top of the pan and imparted an intriguing but unwanted hickory-smoked bacon flavor to the syrup. There was dejection. When a gallon of sap had boiled down to a near-invisible coating of a few ounces, the sensible thing to do was add another gallon. That was hard on one's sense of progress. It gave the impression we were constantly at the starting point.
But gradually the syrup built up. At the end of two weeks, we (another euphemism, for a ratio of 35-fold wife work to 1-fold husband work) had created more than a gallon of high-grade syrup.
When the total rose to two gallons, spouse was carried away by the power of boil-down. She embarked on a course of reducing part of the syrup further to maple candy: both maple sugar and the ambrosial type made with cream added.
Samples of all products -- syrup, sugar, ambrosia -- were dispatched to relatives West. The results were among the most gratifying in the history of bicoastalism.
But no one from California moved east. Spouse did not encourage further drilling. Calculations on the old adding machine indicated that, at minimum wage, the end product ran to about five times the cost of the store-bought syrup.
Now the spiles sit on a shelf in the cellar. Some of the plastic buckets went to the beach. The handles broke on others.
One winter we made a few ounces of wintergreen syrup from the sap of a black birch. But only ounces. Then there was a brief flirtation with Indian lemonade (a decoction of red sumac berries swirled in cold water, filtered through cheesecloth, and sweetened with honey).
The rest is silence. The works of Euell Gibbons and the Rodale Press sit comfortably on a shelf devoted to nature books. If any bicoastal high-tech entrepreneur wants to borrow them to start a robot-run, CAD/CAM-designed syrup industry, he's welcome. But if those robots have spouses, watch out.