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Not-So-Wholesome Maple Syrup

Air Date: Week of

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It’s spring, which means the sap is rising and the maple sugar is flowing. Writer Lois Shea went sugaring recently, and talks about this New England ritual.


CURWOOD: It's spring, finally, in New England, and the sap is rising and the maple sugar flowing. New Hampshire writer Lois Shea went sugaring recently and sent us this essay about the regional ritual.

SHEA: Jennifer and I were collecting sap in a small sugar orchard, on a perfect day in March. Spring's first blood rush was coursing through the sugar maples and spilling, plink, plink, plink, into galvanized buckets. We were engaged in that New England tradition of quaint self-reliance, of purity of spirit and of produce. We were making maple syrup. And, very stupidly, I was straddling a stone wall, standing shin deep in sloppy snow, with a five-gallon bucket of sap in one hand. I reached across the wall to lift another bucket off a tree. You know what happened next.

I slipped and ground my knee savagely into the stone wall, and let loose with a string of curses so vile that my dead Irish grandmother is probably still appealing to St. Peter on my behalf. Grimacing, but too embarrassed to admit to my wound or to my stupidity, I climbed in to the truck, and we bumped back down to the sugar house. The men were there, engaged in the time-honored New England ritual of standing around the evaporator and telling rude jokes.

My favorite: What's the difference between a New Hampshire sugar maker and a Vermont sugar-maker? A Vermonter goes along collecting sap. He comes to a bucket, lifts the lid, and finds a drowned squirrel inside. He looks all around to make sure nobody is watching, then he throws the squirrel away and pours the sap into his collecting tank. A New Hampshire sapper comes along and finds a drowned squirrel in his sap bucket. He looks all around to make sure nobody is watching, rings the squirrel out into his bucket, and then throws the squirrel away and pours the sap into his collecting tank.

Then we start on the Red Sox. Nomar is cussed, Grady Little is cussed. We reach way back and cuss Harry Frazee for selling Babe Ruth. The Yankees are cussed bitterly, and that was before anyone told a sheep joke, or Rogers Clemens and a sheep joke. You get the idea.

If the world ever knew what was said around New England evaporators, all in the process of making pure maple syrup. People buy maple syrup because it's the best tasting stuff in the world. And it is, to be sure, pure of content, the unadulterated distillation of early spring in New England. But people from, say, New Jersey or California, also buy something else when they lay down the $9.95 a quart. They buy nostalgia. They like to look at the jug on the breakfast table and imagine some sugarhouse in a little hollow somewhere, where green plastic tubing is ne’er to be seen, and a happy farmer rocks on his heels reciting Frost without irony, as the sap bubbles on through the night.

If they knew we were over here cussing knee injuries and the Red Sox, and making crude wildlife jokes, they might think us impure, somewhat less than quaint, and they might think our syrup tainted by association. So don't tell, but it's really not true about the squirrel.

[MUSIC: Allison Brown “The Red Earth” A World Instrumental Collection – Putumayo (1996)]



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