The Rise and Fall of Maple Sugar

If, like me, you’re weary of being shamed over the foods you eat (think HFCS, think veal, think foie gras, think hand-caught baby harp seal en croûte), you might be comforted to know that the practice of shaming others over their dietary choices is nothing new in America. Cane sugar is perhaps the archetypal politically incorrect food. Various groups, notably religious groups (especially Quakers) began protesting cane sugar as early as the 1780’s. Why? Because cane sugar was produced by slave labor (which, you know, was a pretty darn good reason).

And here our good friend Thomas Jefferson enters the picture again, for he was one of the loudest critics of New World cane sugar production practices. And that, by no coincidence whatsoever, made him a big booster of domestically-produced maple sugar. Jefferson (as well as George Washington and other notables like James Fenimore Cooper) imagined an America entirely free from the stain of slave-made cane sugar. Toward that end Jefferson planted maple trees all around Monitcello and other southern locales (few of which, unfortunately, survived). Despite his failures, the battle was truly joined against cane sugar, which the new union taxed heavily. In 1818 maple sugar was half the price of cane sugar despite being much more expensive to produce. And the taxes remained even as various European powers began to abolish slavery (Britain in 1833 and France in 1848). By the time of the Civil War came about the maple sugar industry was booming, producing some 40 million pounds of sugar and over one and a half million gallons of syrup every year.

And then the bottom fell out. In part because the North won the war, in part because the taxes were peeled away, in part because of the rise of the sugar beet. By 1880 the price of maple sugar was the same as that of white sugar. This was about the time that the maple sugar industry switched tactics and began to focus their marketing efforts on syrup. It was also the same time that the waffle really started to take off in America. Cornelius Swarthout received the first patent for a waffle iron in 1869 and street vendors started selling waffles slathered with syrup in cities across the nation. Coincidence? I think NOT!

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