Missouri woman recalls harvesting sugar maple sap to make maple syrup during the winters of the depression era
When freezing and thawing days of February and March roll around, I am reminded of the activities on the farm at that time of the winter when I was a child. Nowadays to most folks it means snow, rain and fog one day and warm, sunny days the next, with a case or two of flu thrown in for good measure. But for those maple syrup makers this is the best time of all seasons. When the temperature is below freezing at night and the days warm up to around fifty degrees the sap flows fast in the maple trees, even before there is a hint of spring. About two weeks before, my father went into the woods of the Ozarks and cut pine trees just about the right size and hauled them down to the wood yard. There he cut them into two foot lengths and split them through the middle lengthwise, hollowed out the center of each half to make a trough in which to catch the maple sap. (Wooden buckets were too expensive.) Then he brought from the marshy places in the bottom field a load of box elder saplings and cut them in twelve inch lengths to be used as spouts. He heated a length of wire red-hot in the old fireplace and forced it through the entire length of each spout, forming a channel through which the sap could drain. One end of the spout was whittled down a bit for convenience at a later stage in the process.
When the sap was rising just right, my father hitched the team of horses to the farm sled and loaded in all the troughs, spouts, an augur, along with a hammer or two, and we headed for the maple sugar grove a half mile away. We drove through the grove, dropping off a trough at each tree until all were distributed, being very careful to keep the inside of each one as clean as a pin. A hole was bored into the tree about two feet from the ground and the small end of the spout driven into the hole. Immediately the rich, sweet sap began flowing through the spout dripping into the pine trough below. Two or three times a day we had to empty all this sap from the troughs into a barrel on the sled and store it until we had collected enough to fill the big boiler already set up over a dugout furnace in the side of the hill near the house. Huge piles of wood were ready to keep the fire roaring under the boiler the entire day, while the sap rolled and boiled, gradually turning a golden soft brown as the hours dragged by. The greenish white foam that boiled up every second must be skimmed off in order to improve the flavor of the finished product. The grown-ups took turns manning the skimmer, for it was a tiring task to stand there in the smoke and heat from the fire in front, while your back would be freezing. The skimmer was made by punching a dozen or so holes in the bottom of an old pie pan. This was to allow the juice to drain back into the boiler, and at the same time hold the "skimmings" in the pan to be dumped out on the ground. The pie pan was fastened to a long handle of a discarded broom so the tender could stand away from the hot, boiling sap to avoid getting scalded. It took forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup, so you see the greater portion boiled away and escaped as steam. It boiled vigorously until it was reduced to about two or three percent of the original volume.
Near the end of the day my father would begin testing every few minutes to see when it was the proper consistency for "stirring off." When it reached that stage the fire was pulled out from under the boiler and the syrup was allowed to cook a bit, then poured into various containers, properly covered, and stored away in the kitchen cupboard. The next morning for breakfast we would have country sausage with a big platter of fried eggs, hot biscuits and real butter doused with a plate full of maple syrup the likes of which we had not tasted since last year.
If you've been eating imitation-flavored maple syrup that comes from the grocer's shelf in a glass bottle, you're missing a delicacy that's never found outside a country kitchen close to a sugar maple grove.
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