Sugar From Trees: An American Heritage

November 13, 2018

The first chapter in the history of maple syrup is a uniquely Native North American one.

maple syrup sold here sign​First there were historic midterm elections, and then I turned 40. (Nope! Not unrelated! My mother and father voted on the way to the delivery room.) Then there was the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I—Armistice Day—and yesterday was Veteran’s Day. We’re just about to celebrate Thanksgiving, and, all the while, November is National Native American Heritage Month. I guess you could say that, with this year’s change in the weather (read: annual slowing down), there’s been more than the usual amount of reflection going on over here.

And that’s as it should be. My election-related birth-story aside, each of these commemorations honor different bits and pieces of our familial lore. A woolen vest that my maternal great grandmother (pictured seated below) knitted for my great grandfather during World War I hangs in my closet; he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army at 16. I sit beside a framed picture of my paternal grandmother preparing to fly a domestic supply plane while my grandfather was half-a-world away in a helicopter bound for the eastern front (and while my husband’s grandfather commanded a tank on the western front) of World War II. A cousin on one side manned a Navy submarine during the cold war, and an uncle on the other was there with the Coast Guard when the wall fell, marking the end of it.

I will be the queen of pie again at Thanksgiving this year, bringing the traditional trifecta of pumpkin, apple and pecan to the table.  My mother will do the cranberry bread and cranberry preserves, the sweet relish and pickles (all family recipes) and my mother-in-law one bird, the gravy, and the stuffing. (My husband will smoke the other on our Sapling!) I will rely on my father, as usual, for his signature green bean (amandine) and broccoli (polonaise) dishes. And somehow, in the chaos of so many cooks, I’ll manage a skin-on mashed red potato with parsley and a “squished squash”—the unadulterated butternut dish of my childhood. We’ll rely upon a local bakery for the rolls. Sigh. I can’t wait!

Until last year, though, I didn’t even know November held another occasion for slowing down and reflecting: National Native American Heritage Month. And now that we’re several years into running a business manufacturing equipment for backyard maple sugar makers, it seems a good time to pause, remember, and give thanks for how open-air sugar making got its start many hundreds (thousands) of years ago here among the native peoples of North America.

Corn, beans, cotton, tobacco and maple are all crops first developed by the Americans. Unlike with the first four products, there were a handful of prominent European immigrants who purported to take credit for the discovery of maple syrup or maple sugar (we’ll call out a certain Jesuit Priest, P.F.X. Charlevoix, on the latter). However, history and common sense weigh heavily against these lonely historical voices. Rather, European writings overwhelmingly describe the processing of maple as a traditional activity engaged in by tribes covering a vast geography of present day United States and Canada, with the language, customs and legends you might expect to attend to any practice of cultural importance.

Contemporaneous European writings indicate that maple sugar making was an activity widely engaged in across the continent among tribes that lived—at least at the time Europeans made landfall—across and even slightly beyond present-day sugar country. To appreciate this geographical scope, note the traditional territories of the Abenaki, Algonquin, Chippewa, Cree, Housatunnuk, Iowa, Iroquois, Kansa, Kickapoo, Menomini, Ojibwe, Omaha, Osage, Ponka, Tuscarora and Winnebago peoples—all of which are among those mentioned in European writings about maple—on this awesome map.

Native American words for maple are interesting too. Algonquins call maple sugar sinzibuckwud (drawn from wood), while the Tuscarora, Omaha/Ponka words for sugar – urenakri and janija – mean, simply “tree sap” (likewise, the Winnebago tanijura niju means “wood water” or “wood rain”). Like present day sugar makers, the Americans appreciated the difference between a maple tree generally—ninautik (Ojibwe for “our own tree”)—and the sugar maple, sheesheegummawis (Ojibwe for “sap flows fast”) too.

Far from being decried as “the cruelest month(s),” however, many Americans celebrated March or March and April as the “sugar moon,” and European accounts of the ceremony, dance, feasting and revelry that attended what we now call “sap season,” “boil-off season,” or “maple syrup time” abound. (This, perhaps, should come as no surprise, as at least one European immigrant noted that maple sugar sometimes functioned as a stopgap against famine here in the early spring months.) According to European writings, an Ojibwe custom involved a tribal leader mixing together maple sugar from the prior year’s harvest with the first grains produced in the present year to kickoff an annual feast, for example. And several tribes recounted to Europeans legends explaining the origins of maple—one as the unintended consequence of cooking with sap instead of water in order to save an arduous trip to the river, and another involving a divine being watering down what used to flow out of the tree as syrup as an instruction in proper work ethic (or rebuke for the lack of same).

The way the Americans made maple sugar, however, will sound quite familiar to the backyard sugar makers of today. As was common among the descendants of European (and other) immigrants up until just half-a-century ago, Americans typically set-out to live in a camp nearer to the family’s sugar stand when the sap began to flow. In a number of traditions, the camps belonged to the women and were passed down matrilineally. Unlike today, where practices vary, it was predominately the women of the family who ran the sugaring show, with the aid of children and youth (and, less often, or for specific tasks, grown men). They made bark sap buckets, bark buckets for transportation and storage of sap, “tapped” the tree with a gash and a wooden chip, and oversaw the boiling itself, which, until Europeans brought and traded metal cookware, took place in hollowed out logs into which were placed hot rocks. Like we do today, the Americans were known to throw the ice off of the top of a sap or sap-storage bucket to concentrate the sugars (it is officially not cheating!), and even store sap in large shallow pans to produce more ice (nature’s reverse osmosis!) to drink the sap, eat fresh syrup and maple toffee (present day “sugar on snow”) during the boil, and make gifts of their maple bounty (typically by pouring almost-sugar into carved wooden molds of animals, birds, people, celestial bodies and more)!

Because of the non-existence (or, after European arrival, scarcity) of glass and metal, however, the bulk of the American maple crop was made all the way into sugar and packed into bark baskets for transportation and year-round storage. This was done, as it is today, by continuing to boil past the sugar and toffee stages, and by stirring constantly until crystallization occurred. (Apparently, the Americans’ maple sugar lumps, like mine, sometimes needed a good whacking in order to resemble sugar. Which is also nice to hear.)

Americans ate maple products on their own (see above) but also relied upon it, in the same way Europeans relied on salt, to season their food. By way of example, European immigrants recorded eating corn porridge sweetened with maple sugar, rice, nut and fruit dishes seasoned with maple sugar, and dipping sauces made from maple sugar and bear fat on dry or cooked venison. American mothers were said to give their children small baskets containing sugar from the year’s first sap run, and lumps of sugar throughout the year when quiet behavior was unattainable using other methods. (Thus vindicating many a modern-day parenting style!)

There’s much more, of course, than what I’ve related here. If you are interested, pick up this book as a start. I’m looking forward to relating more to you during next year’s observation of National Native American Heritage Month. Until then, enjoy the annual slowing down, travel safe and enjoy your loved ones this holiday season.

Together in Maple!

​-Kate

family photo of 3 women and a baby

This blogger’s heritage is also North American! I am pictured here with my matriline, which traces back to the Mi’kmaq, a native people of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Newfoundland and Maine. The Mi’kmaq word for the month of March translates to “Maple Sugar Moon.” We’ve long since lost our ties to this branch of the family, but I guess you could still say we’ve got maple syrup in the blood!