The ups and downs of making maple syrup


Sundays with my grandpa were very predictable. After dinner, my brother and I raced out of the house and into the backyard. We followed our grandpa past the pine trees into woods behind his property. We hiked all the way to his “grandkid tree.”

After a grandchild was born, he carved their initials in the tree. I liked to run my fingers along my large capital letters, JCP, picturing grandpa carving them with his pocket knife.

After the walk, we had grandpa’s favorite dessert, molasses cookies. While eating the sweet and slightly bitter cookies, he liked to tell us how molasses was better than maple syrup.

Not a fan

When I started dating my husband, he could not understand my grandpa’s quirkiness about molasses and maple syrup. I tried my best to explain that his dislike of maple syrup had to do with bitter memories of his childhood chores.

He was born in 1917, just north of Dorset, Ohio, on his family farm. Their house had 10 rooms, one of which was a birthing room that was later converted into a well-stocked pantry. They stored smoked meats and canned vegetables on the shelves. Medicinal herbs hung from nails on the walls and flour ground at the grist mill was stored for later. It was before electric and indoor plumbing.

My grandpa liked to brag that he went to school in a horse-drawn sleigh in the winter. Living in Ashtabula County, the horses pulled them across a lot of snow before they reached the schoolhouse.

More chores

After the long winter, when the nights were frigid and sunshine brought warmth during the day, it was maple syrup season. His family, like many farming families during this time, was self-sufficient. They ate what they grew and made a little money by selling their excess. They sold milk from their jersey cows to be made into cheese. They also sold eggs, flour and maple syrup.

My grandpa and his younger brother had long lists of extra chores when it was maple syrup season. They had to chop firewood, tap trees and collect sap. I can imagine them sloshing through the melting snow in order to collect hundreds of gallons of sap. Then, they had to keep the fire burning with the perfect amount of heat in order to boil down to sap into syrup.

Obviously, the best part of the whole process was the very first sip of maple syrup when it was cooled enough not to burn. But not for my grandpa; he did all the work, but didn’t even like the taste. It was too sweet, according to him.

When my grandpa and I first explained to my husband why he didn’t like maple syrup, my husband still didn’t understand. He pondered this resentment until the first spring he made his own maple syrup.

First batch

We started out small with just a few sugar maples tapped. We cooked a large vat of sap down over a fire until there was just enough to bring in to cook on our electric range.

After all the work of gathering the sap and chopping the firewood, he became a little too relaxed or maybe distracted by children when it was on the stovetop. What happened next is still a mystery.

He thought the unit was on low, but it was on high. It boiled all right; it boiled out of the pot and all over the glass stovetop. Some of it caramelized while the rest oozed down over the edge like a sweet river running between the panes of glass in the oven door.

It smelled heavenly, too heavenly. We lost a lot of syrup that first year, but instead of causing an aversion, my husband treated it like liquid gold. Not a drip of maple syrup can ever be wasted. It’s even OK to lick the plates after pancakes.

We’ve made maple syrup again after that first year. Some years we collect the sap and take it to a facility where a newer method uses reverse osmosis to remove the water. Other years, we only tap a couple trees and our kids drink maple sap like hummingbirds drink sugar water.

Whenever I eat maple syrup or molasses cookies, I can’t help but picture my grandpa tapping maple trees and carving initials into trees.

He lived to be 90 years old, visiting all 50 states and traveling the world to see places like Israel and Egypt. But he never once ate a drop of maple syrup.


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