Dr. Milt Sernett
Warm days and cool nights in March signal the arrival of "sugaring off" season in New York State. Neighbor Brisbane to the north of us winters in Florida and twenty years ago or so offered to turn his entire maple syrup making operation over to yours truly. There were over fifty acres of trees, a sugar house the size of a vacation cottage, an evaporator that appeared to be partially disassembled, gathering tanks, buckets, metal spigots, and assorted other paraphernalia. My maple syrup making skills were and still are those of a rank amateur.
I talked with several members of the New York State Maple Producers Association seeking counsel in the art of transforming sap to syrup and came away with the impression that what may be a winter diversion to me is a religion to others. Old-timers swear by their secret rituals and tell of attending to the boiling liquid in the evaporator as if it were the elixir of eternal life. They think nothing of staying up all night when the sap is boiling. As the column of steam rises above the sugar shack and the entire surface of the boiling pan tosses and turns, the devotees wait for just the right moment to draw off the syrup. Skilled maple producers attend to every detail with the dedication of monks at a holy shrine. Their ultimate goal is high quality Grade A syrup, which can contain no less than 66 percent sugar. New York Grade A Light Amber--the lightest of the three classifications in taste and color--is the Holy Grail.
A bottle of "Log Cabin" sits in our refrigerator, bought at Wegmans as I recall. It is but 2% real maple syrup. Some grocery store products contain less than that. When I offered the real thing--New York Grade A Light Amber--to a house guest recently, I was informed that he preferred the artificial stuff. He thought pure maple syrup tasted funny, as if it were the imposter. What a peculiar turn-of-events! What would William Burt, founder of the Leader Evaporator Company in 1888 in Vermont and pioneer in introducing the first flue type evaporator to the industry, think? He would surely be saddened by our preference for cheap substitutes, just as Moses was when he came down from Mt. Sinai and discovered that the Israelites had fashioned a Golden Calf to worship [Exodus 32].
I refrain from becoming too self-righteous, for the butter we use is not real butter, the milk we drink is skim milk, and I once ate a soy burger. Nevertheless, I maintain that holding on to the authentic in life is worth the struggle. There is no substitute for the unadulterated Gospel. An imitation Christ is an icon without power. Authentic Christianity is something worth preserving in an age where being a Christian means little more to many people than wearing the label. The apostolic Church defined pure Christianity as "the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." [Mark 1.1] When St. Paul wrote to those calling themselves Christians in Galatia, he warned them about accepting any other gospel than what he had preached--"Justification by Faith in Christ Jesus." One of the hallmarks of the authentic Christianity is that we hold to the Gospel as absolutely genuine--"all wool and a yard wide."
In Amateur Sugar Maker, Noel Perrin describes how before 1800 New Englanders got sap out of a maple. The early settlers simply went to their sugar orchards with sharp axe in hand. They would give each tree a good whack, sap would trickle down the bark, and a hollowed-out piece of pine log served as a gathering bucket. "The great flaw to the system," Perrin writes, " was that it usually killed the trees within five years. Maples don't like being whacked." Today the art of maple sugaring is far more complex, not to mention expensive, if one is just starting out. As Perrin says, "when you're producing a sacred article, you don't have to maximize your cash return." If you are out and about on the country roads this March and April, you will see signs such as "Pure Maple Syrup Sold Here." A gallon may cost you as much as sending a family of four to the movies. Pay the farmer with a smile. His profit margin is close to zero when time and labor are factored in. His rewards are almost entirely intrinsic--the taste of real maple syrup on a stack of buckwheat pancakes and the satisfaction of accepting no substitutes.
The Leader Evaporator Co., Inc., of St. Albans, Vermont, is one of the oldest such firms in the country. It boasts that it has been in "Continuous Service Since 1888." This is quite a claim, given the fact that in some seasons the sap has been exceedingly thin. Despite our ups and downs, the good folks at Cazenovia’s Methodist Church can proudly advertise--"Continuous Service Since 1832" and the folks at the Nelson Methodist Church can claim “Continous Service Since 1833.”
Dr. Milt Sernett