Last weekend, we went to Jillson’s Farm and Sugarhouse in Sabattus, Maine, for their hearty weekend breakfast buffet. Tucked between rolling hills, which in March are the color of shredded wheat, the farm is in classic central Maine country—wide fields and hills punctuated by forests. While Maine is rightly known and loved for its rocky coast, this central Maine landscape will always be what I envision when I think about the state.
Jillson’s has a store/dining area large enough for a buffet table and a smattering of dining tables, many of them long and family style. There are maple products galore to tempt those like me, who are smitten by anything with a maple flavor. I succumbed to maple-cream donuts and maple-flavored kettle corn, one of my absolute favorites. After all, it combines two things I especially love—maple syrup and popcorn. The store also sells other Maine products such as cheese, eggs, and butter.
I spoke with Pat Jillson, one of the owners, and she told me that the maple syrup season was over. It started February 28th and only lasted for a couple of weeks. “It was the shortest ever,” she said. So there was no smoke coming from the wood fires used to boil down the sap, no watching the alchemy of sap turning to syrup. Because the season was so short, the yield was not good, and I can’t help but wonder if prices will go up because of this. Fortunately, Pat and her husband, Ed, do not rely solely on maple syrup for their livelihood. They have a large farm and grow a variety of vegetables, which I often buy at the farmers’ market in downtown Winthrop. Jillson’s Farm illustrates perfectly how diversity is a very good thing.
Below are pictures that my husband, Clif, took, inside and outside, of the farm and the too quiet sugarhouse. We can only hope that next year will be a better season for maple syrup.
This morning, as I was waking up, I heard on Maine Public Radio that today is Maine’s birthday. We are 190 years old! If I hadn’t made an apple pie yesterday in honor of Pi day, then I would make a cake in honor of Maine’s birthday. And what kind of cake? Blueberry, I think. What could be more appropriate? I would use Marjorie Standish’s recipe, a blueberry cake that is so moist and tender that I think I can be pardoned for using the cliché “it melts in your mouth.” And, in fact, the recipe is called Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake.
Marjorie Standish, who died in 1998, has been dubbed by Down East Magazine as “the First Lady of Maine Cooking.” For many years, she wrote a column for the Maine Sunday Telegram,and she also taught at cooking schools. Standish wrote cookbooks as well, and her Cooking Down East sits on my bookshelf. Standish was what we Mainers call “a plain cook.” Along with the delectable blueberry cake, there are recipes that include cream of mushroom soup, canned gravy, and canned mushrooms. Never mind. Her blueberry cake is so good that it makes up for the recipes using canned ingredients, and there are plenty of other recipes that are made entirely from scratch.
In flipping through Cooking Down East, I came across her Perfect Blueberry Muffins. I have wild Maine blueberries in my freezer. Maybe I’ll make blueberry muffins to celebrate Maine’s birthday. Not quite as good as the cake, but to have both cake and pie in the house at the same time seems a bit excessive, especially when you consider we won’t be having guests until the weekend, which means it will be just me and my husband, Clif, to eat the cake and pie.
So blueberry muffins it shall be. And Happy Birthday, Maine.
On Tuesday, my husband, Clif, and I headed to the big city—Portland—to hear a lecture given by “legendary editor” Judith Jones, who “championed” Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking when it was a lowly book proposal at Alfred A. Knopf. (As if that weren’t enough, she was also responsible for the American publication of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Let’s just say the woman has impeccable taste.) The lecture was sponsored by the Portland Museum of Art, and, as their online blurb put it, “made possible by the Bernard A. Osher Lecture fund.” Jones has edited cookbooks by Jacques Pépin and James Beard, among others, and along with her late husband, Evan Jones, she has written two cookbooks. She has also written on her own, including The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. After listening to her snappy talk, I want my very own copy.
I had read about Judith Jones in Julia Child’s My Life in France, and I had also seen her in a PBS special—American Masters, I believe—about Julia Child. In the special, Jones came across as lively and confident, and I hoped she would come across that way in person, even though she is well into her eighties. Well, she certainly did. Petite and slender with a surprisingly deep voice, Jones looked smart in a bright pink jacket, and she seemed to be perfectly comfortable speaking before a large audience. She was sharp, articulate, and funny, and I was completely captivated.
Like Julia Child, Judith Jones had a food epiphany when she went to France, where good food and wine are such an integral part of life, where whole families go to the market together because they love shopping for food. Jones had come from a family who thought that food was “fodder” and that a home shouldn’t smell of cooked food. (I can’t help but wonder if this Puritan attitude transferred itself to our big grocery stores, which seldom smell of food.) Her mother had saved letters that Jones had written from France when she was in her twenties, and on rereading them, Jones was struck by her younger self, by this “cheeky girl who thought that food was a worthwhile pursuit.” (Jones also attributed her love of food to a maid/cook who had worked for her family. This was a woman who wasn’t afraid of the way food smelled, and she used garlic and spices when she cooked in her own home.)
Naturally, Jones told funny (but affectionate) stories about Julia Child and James Beard. She movingly described how lonely she felt after her husband died in the 1990s and how she thought she would never cook just for herself. As it turned out, she was wrong about that, and one of her books is The Pleasures of Cooking for One. She asserted—quite correctly, in my opinion—that “the professional chef is in a different world from us home cooks, and we need to loosen up a little.” As an example, she mentioned fresh herbs in the winter, how expensive they are and how they really aren’t very fresh at all. (I have come to the same conclusion and often used dried herbs in the winter.)
During the question and answer after the talk, someone from Weight Watchers asked how to combine the love of food with health and obesity concerns. How do we strike a balance? Jones responded that bad habits make Americans fat. She explained that she exercises a lot and doesn’t snack between meals. I suspect she also doesn’t go in for fast food or processed food, two major obesity culprits. She also spoke of the importance of taking the time to cook from scratch.
I agree, and these are all things I’ve written about in previous posts. Unfortunately, time is one thing so many Americans lack, and I must say that I have a great deal of sympathy for frazzled parents who spend so much time away from home and don’t make enough money to hire someone to help with household chores, both inside and outside. (And a lot of us fall into that category.)
Yet if we start with the notion that food, real food to borrow from Michael Pollan, is a worthwhile pursuit then surely this is a step in the right direction and quite different from the conflicted attitude so many Americans have about food. We love it; we hate it; we fear it; we desire it. And in the end, we don’t even know what we should eat. All the while, the French, who are among the healthiest people in the world, eat cream, butter, eggs, and white flour, and they relish them all.
No wonder Judith Jones had a food epiphany in France.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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