Tales from the Cabin
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A Sap For Maple Syrup

Sometimes the price is right

By Paul Sullivan
Published: March 16, 2010
maple syrup harvest sap
Photo by © stockxpert.com
One Saturday morning in March at our cabin in southern Minnesota, I longed for some real maple syrup for my pancakes. So I decided to try making some myself. We had plenty of big maples in our 40 acres of woods. With the recent string of warm days and below freezing nights, the sap should be flowing.

I had some limited experience making maple syrup. When I was a kid, a neighboring farmer tapped the sugar maples in his big woods. The spring I was 13 years old, I helped Mr. Wallace after school by carrying buckets of sap to his sugar shack.

Sometimes, I invited my girlfriend, Christina, to come along. After we finished our work, we’d warm up by the fire under the boiling pans.

Mr. Wallace didn’t mind if we dropped a couple of hot dogs in the boiling pan. The cooked dogs had a sweet maple taste. “But don’t cook ‘em in the finish pan,” he’d say.

On one of those crisp evenings when the evening star sparkled in the deep purple sky, Christina thought we should teach each other how to kiss. We were both quick learners. After a few clumsy tries, our kisses became as sweet as maple sugar.

Still, I grew up having never made maple syrup from start to finish. To do so at the cabin that March weekend, all those years later, had been a spontaneous idea. I thought of what I had on hand out there to use.

Along with other antique tools hanging on the cabin wall as decorations was a brace and some bits. Okay, I could drill holes. I had some small diameter PVC pipe for spigots. For buckets, I’d cut the tops off a bunch of empty plastic water jugs I kept meaning to take back to the city. There, I was in the maple syrup business.

Drilling trees, I wondered how Native Americans discovered maple sap was sweet. Maybe someone sucked on a frozen sap-cicle. And which came first: pancakes or syrup? Somewhere I’d read the Native Americans poured sap into hollowed out logs and dropped hot stones in to make it boil.

At Mr. Wallace’s place, when the sap was really flowing, Christina and I marched from the woods to the sugar shack like the broomsticks carrying water in Disney’s animated movie “Fantasia.” It was a lot of sap. But I’d never paid attention to how much syrup Mr. Wallace actually got from the raw sap.

By Sunday afternoon, I had only three gallons of sap. The PVC spouts hadn’t worked as well as I’d hoped.

I looked up the ratio of raw sap to syrup: 40 to one. I’d get 9.6 ounces of syrup in return for a whole lot of work. No wonder real maple syrup is so expensive.

Next March, when I had a craving for maple syrup, I went to a gourmet food store and collected a quart of 100-percent pure, Vermont maple syrup using nothing but a $20 bill.

Totally worth it.

Paul Sullivan has never met a cabin he didn’t like.
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