February and March is the time of the "maple moon," the season to tap the trees the Indians called sheesheegummawis, or "sap flows fast, to make the thick syrup they labeledseensibaukwut, "drawn from wood." These particular words are Ojibwa, but all tribes had similar words for the sugar maple trees and for maple sugar, the food that was a staple of their diet.
The Indians used maple sugar as a primary seasoning instead of salt. They used the syrup to season game and added it to fish, pumpkins, squash, beans, chestnuts and wild berries. They mixed it with pounded corn or other grain and cooked it into porridge or baked it into hard cakes. In summer, they combined it with cold water to make a refreshing drink.
The Indians taught many of the early explorers how to run sap into syrup. Although a few explorers claimed that they taught the Indians the art, it seems to be well established that the American Indians practiced the art of sugar making long before the Europeans invaded their homeland. Using vessels of clay, hollowed-out wood, or pieces of birch bark sewed together, the Indians collected the sap and then boiled it by placing hot stones in the liquid. They repeated this process until the water had evaporated and a thick syrup remained. Another method was to leave the sap outdoors overnight and remove the crust of frozen, water which had formed. The remaining sap was much sweeter than the original fresh sap.
The Indians knew the trees were ready to be tapped when the crows first appeared about the middle of March. If the squaws had not heard the caws, announcing it was sugar time, the chiefs quickly reminded them, since it was the women who were responsible for making each family's supply of syrup and sugar. In some tribes special maple huts were built close to the grove. Ownership of the huts passed down through the wife's family from generation to generation. However, the children and men both willing participated probably because of the sweet rewards of their labors. Making maple wax or gum by pouring bubbling syrup on the snow was the high point of sugar-making.
Varieties of maple trees are found all over the world, but the sugar maple of northeastern and north central North America yields most of the sap used to make syrup and sugar. It is thought that they might have come from China and Japan where they still abound in some places. Whether brought to this continent by wind or birds no one knows, but we can say that when the first seeds landed on our soil, they found a quiet welcome. The maple is long-lived and easily propagated, but comparatively slow to grow. A tree is seldom suitable to tap for sap until it is 40 or 50 years old and about 10 inches in diameter. The sap of the sugar maple contains from l to 4 percent of sugar by volume. It is clear, like water and may have a sweet taste. A sugar maker must boil about 35-40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Both the sugar content and the quality of the sap may vary widely from tree to tree and from one sugarbush to another. It may vary also from year to year in the same trees.
The flow of the sap, or the "run" as sugar makers call it, may begin as early as February and it may last into April. It may be six weeks, or it may be no more than two. The alternating warm days and cold nights of late winter and early spring produce pressures in the cells of the wood, causing the sap to rise and to flow out the tap holes. The flow is greatest during the warmth of the day and virtually stops at night. As the late spring weather becomes steadily warmer the flow of the sap decreases and the sugaring season is over for another year.
The making of maple syrup has changed little since the early days. Modern metal tanks and evaporators have replaced the old wooden and cast iron equipment. The wood fires in most sugarhouses have given way to oil or gas. Although modern thermometers and hydrometers have supplanted grandfather's old rules of thumb in determining when the syrup is done, the process is still much the same.
The trees are tapped about 4 to 5 feet above the ground where a hole is bored to a depth of two or three inches. There may be several holes in a tree depending on its size. The tap holes are slanted slightly upwards, and a metal, wooden or plastic spout is driven into each. Many growers still hang their buckets directly on each spout and empty them by hand into gathering tanks on low sleds or trailers. Others have attached plastic tubing to the spouts to transport the sap directly to the sugarhouse or storage tanks. The storage tank is always kept outdoors and here the, sap is stored to keep it cold until ready to be fed directly into the evaporator.
The sap entering the evaporator flows around baffles and over the pans heated by the fire underneath. The syrup that is drawn off is divided, for commercial purposes into four different grades of color. Color is one of the Chief factor in grading maple syrup. The lighter the syrup, usually the more delicately flavored and the higher the quality.
If you want to try maple syrup for cooking, using your own recipes, substitute equal amounts in place of molasses or honey. When replacing sugar, reduce liquids in the recipes by three tablespoons for every cup of maple syrup substituted. One cup of maple sugar is equal to three quarters of a cup of can sugar.