MORE ABOUT MAPLE SYRUP: LOSING THREE WEEKS

Yesterday, when I took my dog, Liam, for his afternoon walk, the day was again sunny and warm, the temperature was 50ºF, and maple syrup was still on my mind. (See yesterday’s post, Maple Syrup Alert.) Where I live, it is  wooded and rural, and I passed by a section where the maple trees are being tapped. As luck would have it, two men were collecting the sap from the trees and bringing it to huge barrels in the back of a pickup truck. As I went by the truck, one of the men was in the back, and I stopped to speak to him. 

“How it is going?” I asked. 

“Slow,” he responded, grimacing. 

“Not getting very much?” 

“It’s too warm. We’ve lost three weeks. The other day, I was actually out picking pussy willows.” 

“When do you usually do that?” I asked. 

“Mid-March,” came the reply. 

It was my turn to grimace and to shake my head in sympathy. 

For the rest of the walk, indeed for the rest of the afternoon, I thought about maple syrup and Maine. Economically, it would be horrible for Maine if sap from maple trees could no longer be harvested because spring became too warm too soon. Maine has plenty of economic woes without having another one to add to the list. But there would be another loss to contend with—a cultural loss—which would be nearly as bad. Maine and maple syrup go together like Georgia and peaches and Florida and oranges. It’s almost impossible to conceive of Maine without maple syrup. 

Ever since I was young child, early spring in Maine has meant the tapping of maple trees and the wonderful sweet syrup that comes from boiling down the sap. Until I was eight years old, I lived in Waterville, Maine, a small mill city on the banks of the Kennebec River, which ran dark and dirty in those days. We lived in a tight neighborhood where the houses were close and the yards were small. But in that neighborhood there were maple trees, and some of those trees were tapped. One spring day when I was about six, and I was walking home from school with a group of girls, a neighbor let us have a taste of syrup he had made recently. Readers, I was smitten, totally smitten by the sweet, intense taste of real maple syrup. This was the early 1960s, and unfortunately my family was an Aunt Jemima family. But with that one taste, the scales fell from my eyes, so to speak, and I immediately understood that there was true maple syrup and that there was false maple syrup. The difference was so startling that even my six-year-old palate could tell the difference. 

Will I live long enough to see the demise of maple syrup in Maine? Perhaps not. But if this trend continues, then there is a good chance my children will.

What a thought!

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MAPLE SYRUP ALERT: A POTENTIAL WARNING TO US ALL

Yesterday, the temperature reached 50º F in central Maine, and it has been sunny and warm for well over a week. The snow banks are nearly gone, and the sides of the road are so dry that my dog, Liam, hardly has any mud on his feet when we come in from our afternoon walks. I wish I could say the same thing about our backyard, which is fenced-in for the dog. Right now, most of the snow has melted, and the yard is a muddy mess, especially the paths that Liam has carved with his flying paws as he races around the perimeter of the patio. I’ve lived in Maine for over fifty-two years, and I have never seen a March like this. Usually, it is quite cold, and the snow doesn’t even think about melting until the end of the month. My daughter Shannon’s birthday is the end of April, and one of her ongoing birthday wishes is that all the snow will be gone by then, and a green flush will have crept over the lawns. Well, this year I expect she will definitely get her wish. At the rate things are going, the snow will be gone by the middle of March, which means we are over a month ahead of where we should be.  

So what’s to complain about? Who wouldn’t like warm, sunny days in March after the cold of January and February? And, the truth is, I do like the warmer weather.  Afternoon walks are a pleasure, and my thoughts have turned to gardening and yard work, which I truly enjoy. (Even raking, sweeping the driveway, and clipping brush. I just love being outside.) 

But there is a downside to all this, and it concerns maple syrup. In a previous post—Maple Sugaring Time—I wrote about how in Maine March is the month for tapping trees and making syrup, a sweet, sweet sign of spring and eagerly anticipated. As soon as the tubing and the buckets make their appearance in the woods, I’m ready for a maple syrup breakfast at Jillson’s Farm and Sugarhouse, and we plan to go this Saturday. 

However, the warm weather had me worried. For the sap to run, the days need to be warm, but not as warm as they have been, and the nights need to be cold, much colder than they have been. This morning, I called Jillson’s to find out if there would be a maple syrup breakfast this weekend. Yes, there would be. How about the sugarhouse? Would it be fired up, making glorious syrup from sap? Well, maybe not. “It might be a short season this year,” the man on the phone told me. “Very short. If the weather cooperates, we’ll make syrup. If not, then we won’t. We can’t.”

That’s how it goes. Last year’s sap season was short, and this year’s might be even shorter. It all depends on the weather. We all depend upon the weather, and when it changes—as it is certainly doing, despite what skeptics might say—we gain things, and we lose things. In Maine, over the years since my childhood, we have gained shorter winters, ticks, Japanese beetles, cardinals, and turkeys. We seem to be losing our maple syrup season, and according to National Geographic, sugar maples, along with other trees, have begun migrating north, entlike, at “an average clip of sixty-two miles a century.” With their flying helicopter seeds, maple trees are especially well suited for migrating, and in the National Geographic piece, there is speculation that these trees are migrating even faster than the aforementioned sixty-two miles a century. So in time, we might lose our sugar maples altogether, and that will be the end of maple syrup in central and southern Maine. (Northern Maine, perhaps, will be able to hold onto their trees. It all depends on how warm things get.) 

All I can say is, we humans had better start wising up.

NOT SO WONDERFUL WHOOPIE PIES

Weather wise, the past few days have been very odd. In fact, the whole darned winter has been a strange one. Parts of the eastern seaboard have been pelted by one storm after another, and surely New York and Washington, D.C., have received more snow than they ever thought they would get. Meanwhile, the weather in central Maine has been relatively balmy with not much snow. Even around our little house in the big woods, there are bare patches of ground that grow larger every day. Today is March 1st, yet in some ways it has felt as though most of February was, in fact, March, that intermediate month of gray weather, mud, and gloom, when it’s not quite winter but not quite spring, either. While we are not sorry to be spared the massive snowstorms, most central Mainers are not exactly excited about the prospect of having two Marches. To our way of thinking, April is certainly not the cruelest month in Maine. That honor belongs to March.

To go right along with the weird weather we’ve been having, a tempest blew in last Thursday. While New York City, where our eldest daughter, Dee, lives, was again bombarded with snow, Maine got rain—and plenty of it—along with strong winds. It rained and rained until basements filled with water, rivers flooded, and in one town—Rockland—a roof blew off a house and blocked the main street. On our road, a huge tree came down, taking power lines with it, and we were without power for twelve hours. We felt very sorry for ourselves until we heard from our friend Bob Johnson in New Hampshire, who had been without power for two days.

On the Friday after the storm, I took our dog, Liam, for a walk. It was a sunny day and fairly warm. Water raced down the ditches—in February!—and it ran so clear that underneath the leaves and the sand were in sharp detail. Birds sang their spring songs, and the remaining snow banks, so little and dirty, had a discouraged look, as though they knew their time was soon coming to an end.

To cheer the family up, I decided to make whoopie pies, those round, little chocolate cakes filled with cream. Moist, chewy, yet made to be held in the hand as they are eaten, whoopie pies are big in Maine, and the whole family is very keen on them. Not far from where we live, there is a company—Isamax Snacks—that makes such good whoopie pies for such a reasonable price that I haven’t made them in years. Many years. In truth, since I was a teenager. Our local grocery store carries them, and whenever we are in a whoopie-pie mood, usually once a week, I just buy them.

But, as someone who likes to cook from scratch, I thought I should give whoopie pies a shot, and the weekend after the tempest—when February had felt like March, and March was still ahead us—seemed like the perfect time to tackle the project. Our daughter Shannon and her fiancé Mike came over, and the whoopie pie making commenced. I used a recipe from The Tightwad Gazette II, and we were all eagerly anticipating an afternoon of whoopie-pie indulgence.

Maybe it was the tempest. Maybe it was the weird February we just had. Maybe it was the recipe or the baking soda I used. Who knows what really happened? But let’s just say my whoopie pies won’t be competing anytime soon with the ones from Isamax Snacks. Flat and disappointing, my whoopie pies looked more like a chocolate cookie than those puffy little half-circles held together with cream that we all love so much. Mine were edible, but that’s about the best that could be said about them.

Three flat whoopies

Now I have to decide how much effort I want to put into learning how to make a good whoopie pie. On the one hand, when a cook fails at making something, the best thing to do is to keep trying until he or she succeeds. Julia Child writes about how she poached so many eggs before she got the results she wanted that she and her husband Paul couldn’t bear to eat any more eggs, and they had to be flushed down the toilet. On the other hand, even though we love whoopie pies, they are a treat that should be an occasional indulgence—once a week at the most. Do I really want to make them over and over until I get them right? Unlike Julie Child, I can’t bear to throw out food that is edible but not perfect. Should Clif and I really be eating so many whoopie pies? And, finally, we have such good local whoopie pies, courtesy of Isamax Snacks, that we never have to go without.

I don’t know what I’m going to do. But this morning, I was looking at whoopie pie recipes on the Internet. While I don’t want to make any firm commitments, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to predict that I will be trying to make whoopie pies sometime in the near future.

MAPLE SUGARING TIME: A SWEET SIGN OF SPRING

“Life is sweet when you’re addicted to the sap.”
—Craig McInnis, the Ottawa Citizen

A few days ago when my dog, Liam, and I were out for an afternoon walk, I noticed something in the woods that made me positively dizzy with excitement—a maze of long blue tubing stretched from tree to tree. No, we don’t have an entrepreneur making moonshine in central Maine. The blue tubing I saw can only mean one thing—the sap has started to run in the maple trees, and from sap comes maple syrup, “golden delight.” As far as I’m concerned, the South can keep its whiskey. Without even a moment’s hesitation, I’d take maple syrup over whiskey. Anytime.

Most Mainers are crazy about real maple syrup, and even though I am a frugal cook, maple syrup is one area where I don’t economize. I just can’t make do with the imitation stuff. No Mrs. Butterworth’s in our house, thank you very much. According to MELiving.com, “In Québec, cheap imitation maple syrup is called ‘sirop de poteau’ or ‘pole syrup,’ suggesting that it was made by tapping telephone poles.” My sentiments exactly.

In southern and central Maine, the sugaring season begins in late February or early March, when the days are warm and the nights are cold. This means that there’s a very small window of opportunity for collecting the sap, which is then boiled down to make syrup. (Depending on sugar content, it takes roughly forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.) Pat Jillson, of Jillson’s Farm and Sugarhouse in Sabattus, Maine, told me that sometimes, if the weather cooperates, they can get six weeks of good sap weather. Last year, the season was short. It started the beginning of March, and it was done by the beginning of April.

Who knows how long the season will be this year? But I am ready, poised on the brink of this sweet season. I don’t tap trees, but Jillson’s Farm and Sugarhouse is not far from where I live, and during the month of March, they feature maple breakfasts. My husband, Clif, and I will be there at least once. We might go back a second time. We’ll buy maple syrup. Will we give in to the temptation of maple-cream donuts? I expect we will. Ditto for maple-flavored kettle corn. We’ll tour the sugarhouse, where we can watch the alchemy of sap being turned to syrup.

My mouth is already watering. Stay tuned.

DINNER WITH FRIENDS: BOB AND KATE JOHNSON

Bread and WineOn Saturday we were invited to have dinner with our friends Bob and Kate Johnson. They live in New Hampshire—the banana belt to those of who live in central Maine. Indeed, there was a striking difference in the amount of snow around our two homes—nearly bare in New Hampshire and about three feet or so around our little house in the big woods in Maine.

Both Bob and Kate are terrific cooks, and an invitation from them means two hours of anticipation as we drive to their house. There were four of us—me, my husband Clif, our daughter Shannon, and her fiancé Mike—and by the time we reached New Hampshire, we had worked up good appetites. To be truthful, almost embarrassingly good appetites.

This meal was Kate’s creation, and for appetizers it included homemade French bread, two homemade salsas, Brie, and blue corn chips. Almost a meal right there. But next came macaroni and cheese, pickled carrots and onions, and flank steaks. Then of course dessert, apple crisp, which I brought. The icing on the cake, so to speak, was the conversation that went with the meal, and the topics ranged from books to movies to politics.

We did show some restraint. We didn’t completely devour everything. (I’m not ashamed to admit I considered eating the last of the steak.)  But let’s just say we made a good dent in the food Kate served, and, if I’m not mistaken, I think we pretty much polished off two loaves of French bread. (My, they were good. Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, and a beautiful, perfect shape.)

Kate graciously allowed Clif to photograph the food and the process, and the photos below will give readers some idea of what a wonderful meal we had. Truly, it was worthy of a “bon appétit” as well as “merci beaucoup.”
Thank you, Bob and Kate!

Bread and Salsa

All gone

Pan frying flank steak
Cutting Flank Steak
Serving

OUT THE WINDOW

Comfort FoodEvery since I started this blog, in August 2009, I have been extolling the virtues of cooking from scratch. Homemade food tastes better, is more economical, and is better for your health. (See my previous post “A Christmas Miracle” ) As Michael Pollan puts it in his new book Food Rules, “Cooking for yourself is the only sure way to take back control of your diet from food scientists and food processors.” And, as an added environmental bonus, cooking from scratch usually means less packaging and therefore less trash.

In general I practice what I preach, and my husband, Clif, and I make most of what we eat. Except for pasta and crackers, there is very little commercially processed food in our cupboards.

However, two weeks ago, I caught a rather nasty bug, and I have been more or less out of commission ever since. I call the bug a bad cold. Clif calls it the flu. Whatever it was, I spent way too much time on the couch, watched too many British Sitcoms, and have had too many coughing fits. During this time, cooking from scratch went out the window, and here is what I wanted to eat and drink: ginger ale; Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, with rice added; sherbet; canned peaches; and saltine crackers. Comfort food of my youth. When sickness strikes, how easy it is to regress.

COOKING WITH MARK BITTMAN UPDATE: MIKE’S BIRTHDAY AND SUPER BOWL SUNDAY

This Christmas, the one present my daughter Shannon really wanted was How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. (For more about this, read “Shannon’s Plan: Cooking with Mark Bittman.”) I am happy to report that this is one cookbook that’s not languishing on the bookshelf, and Shannon has already begun tackling this cooking tome. (What else can you call a cookbook that has 960 pages?)

She’s had some failures. The breading on the fried chicken was too doughy (she thinks perhaps the frying oil wasn’t hot enough) and a lentil soup with homemade broth was “inedible.” (She’s not exactly sure what the problem was with the soup.)

But there have been successes—notably chicken wings, with two different sauces—mustard-honey and a spicy one; garlic roasted chickpeas and pistachios, and tortilla chips made from corn tortillas. Shannon made all these things on Super Bowl Sunday, which also turned out to be the day we celebrated her fiancé Mike’s twenty-seventh birthday.

“Eat up,” she said, as she put the food on the table. We didn’t have to be urged twice. We are, after all, good eaters. By the time we were done, there were only a scattering of chicken wings left, a handful of chickpeas and pistachios, and a few chips. Some thoughts about the chips: Mark Bittman recommends frying them in lard, and Shannon followed his suggestion. They were utterly delicious—far better than packaged chips. The chips can be fried in vegetable oil, and I’ll be soon trying them this way. But let’s be honest. Lard gives fried food that certain something that vegetable oil just doesn’t have. I’m not suggesting that cooks should switch from vegetable oil to lard, but it would be dishonest of me to pretend that lard doesn’t taste better.

The roasted chickpeas and pistachios were my favorite. Shannon made this for the first time at Christmas, and at odd hungry moments, I daydream about them. A very simple combination—chickpeas and pistachio tossed with chopped garlic and oil—but I find them irresistible. They don’t keep well, but who wants to keep them anyway? In a week or so, my friend Diane will be coming over for dinner, and I plan to make these as an appetizer.

But back to Super Bowl Sunday. We ate until most of the food was gone. Mike opened his presents. There was an ice cream cake. Then we settled in to watch the Super Bowl. I know almost nothing about football, and Mike had to explain what was going on. Nevertheless, I found myself rooting for the Saints. (I most always tend to go for the underdogs.)

And, by gosh, the Saints won. Go, Saints, go! And go New Orleans!

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