Making syrup in the suburbs
My husband, Don, tells a story about "method" actor Dustin Hoffman not sleeping or eating for days to prepare for his tired, hungry character in the movie "Marathon Man." When costar Laurence Olivier learned what Hoffman had done, he asked, "Hasn't the dear boy heard of acting?"
The story appeals to Don because he is a "method" filmmaker, if there is such a thing. When my husband decided to make a documentary about a maple syrup farmer, he procured a bucket and spile and tapped one of the sugar maple trees that line our suburban New Jersey street.
Don's documentary filmmaking is an avocation he squeezes in after his paying job and three-hour commutes. I couldn't bear the idea of his adding maple syrupmaking to his agenda. Don proceeded without my support.
My husband's farmer's almanac says Washington's Birthday is when conditions begin to be right - freezing nights followed by daytime thaws - for the sap to flow. As St. Joseph's Day is to the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, so proved Washington's Birthday to the sap on Prospect Street. At noon, a metallic "drip, drip, drip" rang out from the bucket like a curbside metronome.
When Don returned to his land that evening, he recruited our preschooler, Meg, to pull snow pants over her pajamas and trudge out to "the tree." They came back, tracking snow through the house, with smiles that stretched as wide as the mouth of the five-gallon sap bucket. It was half full!
Maple-syrup production benefits from a large-scale operation. It typically takes 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. A maple farmer collects the sap from many trees and boils it down to the correct consistency in a "sugar house" constructed solely for that purpose.
Don and I don't have a sugar house. Our tiny kitchen became one.
Don couldn't reduce his daily collection down to 1/40th on a nightly basis or there would be nothing left. So he devised a system to boil each daily catch down to a concentrate, collect these concentrates and then boil them together at the end of maple season (when the trees bud).
My only likeness to a farmer is that I'm an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of gal. After putting the kids to bed, I left Don in the kitchen, where he began boiling the sap in the largest "pot" in our home - my shiny blue roasting pan that cost more than two dozen jars of fancy-grade maple syrup.
Recognizing my concern, Don said, "You know I need to do this. I promise to be careful with your pan."
He was careful. When the evening went well, I awoke to a sparkling roasting pan, sticky spots on the floor. and a bottle of concentrate in the fridge. When the evening didn't go well (when Don fell asleep on the job), I awoke to the smell of burned syrup, my roasting pan soaking in the sink, and "steel wool" written on my grocery list.
Every night for three weeks Don and Meg made their pilgrimage to retrieve the bucket. The magic of their first night wore off quickly and Meg could usually be seen kicking and screaming her way across the cold, dark lawn. The neighbors were skeptical: "He's making maple syrup on Prospect Street?" The wallpaper in our dining room began to peel off because of the nightly steam treatments. My husband was exhausted from his moonlighting job. And no woman ever wanted the trees to bud more than I did that year.
When the season finally ended, Don was armed with a sugar density gauge and a case of canning jars. After boiling the concentrate in a near-religious ceremony one Sunday morning, Don displayed the yield for three weeks of toil: a meager two half-pint jars of syrup. My husband proclaimed that it was the finest syrup he'd ever tasted (I'm not a lover of maple syrup) and that he could now film his documentary with integrity.
Assuming command of my kitchen again, my first act was to ration the syrup. It's hard to admit this in print, but here goes: For two years, I have been applying Don's syrup to pancakes with a toothpick. Certain that I would never allow my kitchen to turn into a sugarhouse again, I wanted the harvest to last a long time.
This morning I wiped a pancake around the bottom of the second (and last) jar. I didn't have the heart to tell Meg that she was enjoying the final taste of the syrup of which she had grown so proud. Minutes later, Don called out to me from the garage as he was cleaning it, "Don't need this sap bucket anymore. Will the garbage men take it?"
I hesitated. Then I replied, "Better not do that. I think we might be needing it again."