“It’s gotten warmer here,” my mother told me the other day. “Forties during the day. I don’t think it’s going to get down to freezing tonight. I wonder if the sap will stop running?”
For those of you that didn’t grow up in the mid-Hudson Valley, you may know what sap is, but have no idea about its travels: The sap in maple trees “runs” only when the temperatures are below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. So it’s only accessible during a few months of the year. And, for better or worse, during my childhood in Dutchess County, New York, we didn’t quite watch the sap run, but we did something pretty close to it: we watched it boil. Or at least that’s what our parents did while we ran around in the cold or sat as close as they would let us to the metal can propped up on blocks, filled with a wood-burning fire, trays of watery sap steaming on top. Yes, my family was part of a maple-syrup making tradition that, unfortunately for this cold-weather-hating kid, happened every February.
If you confronted my parents about forcing us to stay outdoors for extended periods of time on these cold winter weekends, they might argue, “Oh, it wasn’t that cold. It was at least 32 degrees out there during the day!” But for a ten-year-old? Whatever. It was COLD. And we were OUTSIDE. For HOURS.
My siblings were of the running-around-playing type. But I was of the sitting-down-reading breed. Which usually meant sitting on an upturned crate, as there were only enough folding chairs for the parents. But if I was super lucky, like if one of the parents went to see what craziness the children were up to, I’d get to actually sit in a chair close to the warmth of the maple-syrup-making contraption.
And it was a contraption. . . hand-built by my dad’s friend Gary. Imagine a metal barrel turned on its side. A metal L-shaped pipe sticking out of one side served as a chimney. On the opposite side was the squeaky door that Gary would open every once in a while to add more wood. Sometimes someone would stir the sap simmering in trays cut into the top, but that was about the extent of the activity going on. Why did Gary do the fire-feeding? Well, it was his house. We were in front of his shed, our chairs spread out on his driveway. Us Gallo kids? We were just some of many kids of families invited to join in the excitement.
Thirty years later, Dad, Gary, and their friend Mike still continue the tradition. But, now that they’re retired or semi-retired, they’ve kicked it up a notch.
- Theirs is no longer a DIY evaporator (That’s the actual name of the metal barrel structure).
- They’ve driven to New Hampshire, Vermont, and probably every other northeast state for supplies.
- They’ve taken classes on maple syrup making. Why? I’m not sure, as the stuff they made every winter was perfectly delicious to me. To the point that it would mystify me why anyone would put anything other than pure maple syrup on their pancakes. Then one day I saw the actual price of a bottle of maple syrup in a store. . .
I’d always appreciated my parents driving me a supply when I lived in Boston, Maryland, North Carolina. Though I can’t remember the last time I had pancakes, I still make good use of my stock: As Dad, Gary, and Mike have stepped up their maple-syrup-making operation, I’ve stepped up my uses for it. The only salad dressing in my house is a home-made maple vinaigrette. I sweeten my homemade chai with maple syrup. My husband sweetens his oatmeal with it. My chocolate snack of choice gets a tablespoon of it in every batch.
If friends knew how much of this stuff I used to have in my pantry, they might have made a habit of swiping it when they came to visit. Though that was never necessary. Dad always brought me a variety of sizes saying, “Give some to your friends.” And I did. In fact, we gave it out to 120 of them as our wedding favors two years ago. Because that’s part of the tradition, too. You see, these guys never sell their syrup. They only give it away. And as far I know, it’s never been shipped anywhere. The trip it took down to the Lesser Antilles may very well have been the first time it was transported to another country. . . It’s usually transported by vehicle and handed from one family member or friend to the next. And that, my friends, was going to develop into a minor issue as we got into the 8th month of the pandemic and my supply was running a little lower than usual. My parents, who usually made the drive from New York a couple times per year, would bring my resupply. But they hadn’t visited. And the few bottles I grabbed on my trip up there in July? Well, let’s just say I made a lot of chai and chocolate balls this fall. . . So it was with much anticipation that I awaited my youngest sister Meg’s visit in November. She brought with her a negative COVID test, a dazzling smile, a listening ear, her laughter, her helping hands, and–maybe not most importantly, but certainly very much appreciated–at least ten glass jars of varying sizes of maple syrup.
So as I started giving away or eating everything in our pantry before I left for Barbados, I wondered about the maple syrup. I had more than I could ever eat in the weeks before my departure, so I followed tradition. Anyone that came to visit got a bottle. When I gave food from my fridge, freezer, or pantry away, I’d throw in a bottle. When a friend came over to help and I asked her if she wanted one, she said, “Well, I mean, who would refuse that offer?”
On this February day, with the temperatures due to reach eighty degrees here in Barbados, I can’t say I long for a chair on Gary’s driveway in Poughkeepsie, NY. But I do wonder. . . now that we’ve temporarily moved to Barbados, will Mom and Dad come visit to resupply me when the bottle I brought down here runs out?