Friday, April 15, 2022

Tub Sugar

My Book Club is reading "Braiding Sweetgrass" this month in a non-fiction departure from our usual fare. I will admit I haven't finished the book yet but it's not because it's a slog - rather because it's so beautifully conceived and written that I'm unwrapping it like a special gift. Or perhaps, living as we do in Maple Nation, I'm savoring it like a small nugget of maple sugar.

Robin Wall Kimmerer prepares us for her collection of intertwined essays and memoir describing it as "an intertwining of science, spirit and story - old stories and new ones ... that allow us to imagine a different relationship in which people and land are good medicine for each other."

In "Braiding Sweetgrass," Kimmerer shares the story of the Anishinaabe Original Man, Nanabozho, as he finds his people lolling beneath a maple tree, with their mouths open catching the falling syrup from the trees.
"They had become lazy and took for granted the gifts of the Creator … so he went to the river and dipped up many buckets of water. He poured the water straight into the maple trees to dilute the syrup. … Today, maple sap flows like a stream of water with only a trace of sweetness to remind the people of both possibility and responsibility. And so it is that it takes forty gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.”

While most of the sap harvested from maple trees in our time is turned into syrup, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the sugar produced from the trees was the prize. Cane sugar was rare and expensive and had to be imported from far away while maple sugar, created by boiling sap until it crystallizes, was available in exchange for vigorous outdoor work in the spring before our agrarian ancestors were busied with field work.  

There's an old sugar bush on this farm and squirreled away in the dusty corners of the outbuildings, reminders of a long-past maple sugaring times - galvanized metal sap buckets, some brimming with old-fashioned spiles and a long evaporating tray that once rested atop a roaring wood fire on the arch in the field behind the little house.

Grandpa Matteson's Arch

These days the buckets and spiles have been largely replaced with miles of tubing and giant collection tanks and the sugar shack is almost factory-like with gleaming stainless steel and modern firing devices. 

While we haven't tapped our nearby maples in more than 40 years, several of our neighbors have experimented with making syrup, and just over the hill, there's a new commercial syrup operation.

The sap run is over for this spring. Just last week our neighbor related that it wasn't his best year and he had already finished boiling off the last of his sap, bottled in a case of mason jars to share with his people.

And here I share another old story from a writer who appreciated the sweet gift from maples, my grandfather, W.D. "Golly" Fish. He wrote this in 1969, in his 94th year.

Golly wonders if maple product producers in these recent years make "tub sugar." They used to make it and it was used for such purposes as sweetening pickles and in curing hams. Tub sugar was made from the last run of sap after buds started in the maple trees. The sugar was called a "buddy." It was dark in color and when made into sugar, dark syrup would drain from it. It was reasonable therefore to put it into tubs or buckets which gave it its name of tub sugar. 
As a lad Golly used to pay visits to a lady who lived on a nearby farm. The hams she cured with tub sugar would melt in one's mouth. The cucumber pickles that had been preserved in brine, when freshened and finished with tub sugar, were dark in color and marvelous in taste. Golly could eat one this minute and he would not have to have salt rising bread with it.
buds on the maples

 (Read more about Maple Nation here.)