Tapping the Sugar Tree

It’s hard for modern Americans to imagine a waffle without maple syrup (or at least imitation maple syrup) on it. Waffles with maple syrup have become an American tradition. Yet as I intimated in my own silly way in the post down below, it’s a tradition that was originally born of necessity. Sweeteners were a rare thing in Colonial America. White sugar from the West Indies was expensive in New England, and there was little if any honey. (Apis mellifera, which is to say the honey bee, once known as “the white man’s fly” among the Indians, isn’t native to North America, it had to be brought here — carefully — by ship from the Old World).

That left pretty much just one source of sugar: maple trees. But arriving colonists had no idea that maple trees could be tapped for their sugary sap. They had to be taught by the Indians, who as fate would have it, had only recently learned to make maple sugar themselves. They did it by cutting large “V” shapes into the bark of maple trees and placing a small bark spout at the bottom. The sap ran down the cut, over the bark and into a birch bark bucket called a makuk. But since tree sap is only about 2% sugar, quite a bit of reducing was required to produce either syrup or hard sugar. The Indians accomplished this in one of two ways: either by dropping fire-heated stones into the buckets, which would cause the sap to boil and give off moisture, or by letting the sap freeze. Ice (which is by definition nearly all water) formed, and was simply lifted off and discarded. As the process was repeated over successive days the sap became concentrated. Eventually the sap reduced to the point that sugar crystals began to form, at which time the sugar could be more or less solidified and formed into bricks (I say “more or less” because maple sap contains both fructose and glucose, two sugars which don’t easily crystallize).

It’s important to note that syrup wasn’t the goal of this type of sugaring. Native Americans had no use for liquid syrup, which they couldn’t transport. Solid maple sugar, by comparison, was highly portable and tradable. The colonists themselves preferred the solid stuff, which was more versatile. Maple syrup, the only kind of maple sugar most of us know nowadays, didn’t become popular until the bottom fell out of the maple sugar market in the 1880’s. But more on that later.

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