Press-Republican

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March 27, 2011

Maple sugaring, a brief history

Collecting the sap that brings sugar maples out of winter dormancy and boiling it down to the right consistency for pure maple syrup has signaled the arrival of spring for generations. As a Native American tradition, sugaring is prehistoric in origin.

According to Chippewa lore, there was a time when all one had to do was break twigs off of the limbs of maples and syrup would drip from the broken twigs. Upon learning this, the Chippewas stopped hunting, fishing, gathering and gardening and instead, spent their days lying on their backs letting the sweet maple syrup drip into their mouths.

When the Chippewa creator, Nanabozho, saw that his people were becoming lazy, he repeatedly filled his birch bark basket with river water, climbed to the top of the maples, and poured water into the trees until what came out of the broken twigs was thin, watery sap. What's more, Nanabozho made it so that the sap would flow no more than a few weeks each year.

Iroquois legend tells of Chief Woksis' wife, who used sap flowing from a wound in a sugar maple in place of water, inadvertently boiling down the first maple syrup.

North America's indigenous people slashed the trunks of sugar maples on a diagonal line with axes and collected the dripping sap in birch bark containers. Boiling involved removing hot stones from a fire and dropping them into the sap. The process was painstakingly slow. An alternative method allowed collected sap to freeze. The ice was discarded. The process was repeated until all that was left was maple syrup. The Native Americans had no way of storing syrup, however, so they boiled sap to make granulated sugar, cake sugar (sugar poured into wooden molds to form blocks) and wax sugar (sugar on snow).

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