We’re coming up on the time of year when the sap starts to run again. (No, I’m sitting down at the moment, thank you.) When I was a little boy, my father used to collect sap. It was a small-time operation. We never netted more than a gallon or two, as I can recall. We didn’t have a real sugar house, either, just the brick barbeque in the back yard. My father would keep a fire going for days at a time, with a big pot filled with sap-becoming-syrup. It was more a symbolic, seasonal ritual than an actual production. But it made a lasting appreciation.
Like my involvement with the garden in the summer (reluctant at best) which nevertheless translated later in my life into endless raising of beds and other landscape projects, house after house, my appreciation for the syrup making process was mostly spectatorial. But I do recall one year when I was trusted at last with the big hand drill like a splayed “omega” and pointed out toward the maples near the house. I remember the tool was cumbersome and I got frustrated easily. But eventually the corkscrews of blond wood promised that we could pound in a spout, hang a steel pail under it and home the weather cooperated. Then we pulled my red wagon around on the street near as we could get to the trees, collected the sap as it flowed (or didn’t) and dragged it back to my father in the yard, stirring the pot through the smoke.
It seemed to take forever, and the reduction of so much (heavy!) sap to so little syrup seemed somehow pointless in the making. (“Is it ready YET?”) But then the moment came when my father ladled out a little steaming amber liquid onto the cleanest snow he could find in March and told me to taste “sugar on snow.”
I can’t say I remember that first taste. There have been so many servings of syrup since, so many pancakes, so many waffles, and now steel-cut oats, my regular breakfast these days, with a tablespoon of maple syrup. But like Proust’s cookie, the taste always sends me back to Massachusetts, when I was five, and my father made his own syrup. And it was wonderful.