(From BITTERSWEET, Volume IV, No. 2, Winter 1976)
by Diana Foreman Photography by Doug Sharp
"What is better than maple syrup and hot cakes for breakfast?" Ella Dunn wrote us last January. "When the sap begins to rise in the maple trees you come and spend the day and I'll show you how to tap the tree. You may have to bore the holes as I am not sure I can still do it, but I am sure I can show you the trick."
And show us she did one beautiful early February day when the temperatures were in the forties and fifties after a night of below freezing weather--perfect weather for collecting the sap.
Though maple syrup production is usually associated with the New England states, the Ozarks have a number of wild, hard maples along the banks of its many streams and rivers. To supplement the family's need for sweetening, many Ozark farmers used to tap trees for their own use as Ella's father did and as she has continued to do almost every spring since. Some of her trees bear healed scars of tapping for the last fifty years. This tradition is older than American settlers for the Indians harvested the syrup before the white men came to the new world. Maple syrup is one of the few products produced solely in America.
The sugar maple is a large tree that may grow about 135 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter. It has gray bark and dark green leaves which turn beautiful shades of red, yellow and orange in the fall.
The sap begins to flow in January when the weather is below freezing at night and temperatures rise to the mid-forties or fifties in the day. The sap does not flow very well when the nights stay warm. They need to get down to about 15° to 20°. The sap will continue to flow from four to six weeks, depending on the weather.
The first sap to flow is the syrup making sap, which runs before the sap that the tree feeds on. You can tell if the sap is running by breaking off a small limb. If sap begins to flow from the break, then it is time to tap.
Ella Dunn demonstrates how the brace and bit is used to bore the hole in the tree.
The process for making maple syrup up until the 1940's had been about the same for nearly three hundred years. In the 1940's new equipment was introduced that made the production of maple syrup much easier and faster. Metals and plastics rapidly took the place of organic materials for sprouts and buckets and electrically powered equipment also became a big help in shortening the evaporating process of cooking the sap.
The Ozark farmers and syrup producers did not market syrup commercially, so the need to modernize was not so great. The cost of this new material also prevented modernization. Even if this equipment had not been expensive, it would have been more than they needed, because they used equipment that they already had or that they could make to produce their few gallons each year.
In order to have everything prepared, it was necessary to begin preparing the equipment about two weeks before the sap was expected to flow.
The old way of getting spouts, or spoils as some call them, was often from the stalks of elderberry bushes. The stalks to use should range in size from 3/4 inch to one inch in diameter. Cut them between each joint, making them from nine to twelve inches in length. They must be cut on each side of the joint, so that the pith can be removed. The pith cannot be removed from the joint since it is hardened there. The pith is easily removed by hammering a 3/8 inch rod through the center of the elder spout. Today many use lengths of bamboo, or purchase metal spouts which are easier to use but are also more expensive.
Since most families wouldn't have enough extra buckets or pans to catch the sap in, they would make troughs from logs. Continuing the tradition of using whatever is available, Ella now uses clean plastic milk jars.
When the sap begins to run, get a pocket knife, hammer and a brace and bit with enough bits to match the size of all the spouts. Then gathering up all your buckets or troughs and the energy to bore the holes, head for the maple trees.
The elderberry is nature's way of providing a spout to use in tapping the trees. Above--A patch of elderberries grow wild along the road near Ella Dunn's home. Below--A single elderberry stalk. Notice the joints that must be cut off to remove the pith.
Boring the holes is probably the hardest job, but also the most necessary. It will not harm the tree to bore the small holes in them as they heal over before the next year anyway. However, in the early American settlements people used to chop out a wedge with an axe. This method of collecting the sap soon ruined the tree.
Bore the holes about two feet above ground, either above a root or below a limb, because this is where the sap flows best. Decide which spout you are going to use and find a bit to match its diameter. Find the spot on the trunk you want to bore and knock off the heavy bark with the hammer. Holding the bit steady bore the hole two or three inches deep with a slight downward slope, to encourage the sap to flow out. After removing the bit, scrape out all the shavings left inside the hole with the knife blade.
Next insert the spoil by tapping the larger end with the hammer, driving the smaller end into the hole. Drive it into the hole until it is tight enough to hold. If the spout is too large, whittle the outside down to fit the hole. If it is too small, turn the large end into the hole with the small end out.
This demonstrates how the spout is inserted.
Notice the downward slope of the brace and bit. This aids the sap flowing out.
The many scars on the maple tree from years of tapping. This is not harmful to the tree.
When the spout is in place, set the container under the spout. The ground underneath the spout may need to be cleared and leveled a bit, or perhaps slabs of wood or flat rocks placed under the container will keep it from tipping and allow it to be placed close enough to the spout that the wind does not blow away the sap as it drips out. Each tree can have several spouts flowing at one time.
Empty the containers two or three times daily. On good days four to five gallon may rise, requiring a close watch on the containers to prevent them from overflowing. The average flow for a tree is fifteen gallons a year, but in a dry year you are lucky to get five gallons.
Insects and animals also enjoy the natural sweetness of the sap. To keep out larger animals place a piece of screen wire over the container bending the edges down so the wire can't be knocked off. To keep insects out put a piece of cheese cloth over the container. Each time the containers are checked the sap should be collected as a further safeguard against animals.
It takes about forty gallons of sap to have enough to make about one gallon of syrup, though it is not necessary to accumulate that much sap. Four or five gallons is all that can be cooked at a time in the house. However, it is better to boil down the sap outside if possible, since the tremendous amount of moisture boiled out makes the kitchen very steamy. Those who produced any quantity of syrup would use big vats or kettles outside over an open fire.
It takes several hours to boil the sap to the syrup stage and still more to reach crystallized maple sugar. There is no exact recipe. Each person boils it to the consistency preferred. As the sap boils, skim off the impurities which gather on top and watch closely for the correct consistency. The sap will turn brown. If cooked too long, it will harden like horehound candy. But this candy melted makes excellent flavoring in cakes and other desserts.
The raw sap itself doesn't have a maple flavor nor is it very sweet. The flavor develops as the sap becomes more concentrated through evaporation. The sugar content of the sap in the natural state is only about 2% but when it is cooked down to syrup consistency, the content is nearly 66%.
Home produced syrup is not like the maple syrup you buy unless you get 100% pure maple syrup, which is very expensive. Pure maple syrup is potent and will go a long way. However, even at today's high prices, the production of maple syrup has been steadily decreasing since 1920. However in 1975 production was up 40%.
Using whatever is available is an old Ozark tradition.
Today in the Ozarks very few people take the time and effort to harvest what natural foods we do have. Though there are no longer as many hard maples as in the past, there still are some along the rivers and hollows. Because maples are such beautiful trees many people in towns and cities have them in their lawns. There is no reason why these people could not harvest their own syrup and enjoy some of the nostalgic experience Lola Garrett recalls here from her childhood.
When freezing and thawing days of February and March roll around, I am reminded of the activities on the farm at that time of the winter when I was a child. Now-a-days to most folks it means snow, rain and fog one day and warm, sunny days the next, with a case or two of flu thrown in for good measure. But for those maple syrup makers this is the best time of all seasons.
When the temperature is below freezing at night and the days warm up to around fifty degrees the sap flows fast in the maple trees even before there is a hint of spring. About two weeks before that time my father used to go into the woods of the Ozarks and cut pine trees just the right size and hauled them down to the wood yard. There he cut them into two foot lengths, split them through the middle lengthwise, and hollowed out the center of each half to make a trough in which to catch the maple sap. (Wooden buckets were too expensive.) Then he brought from the marshy places in the bottom field a load of box elder saplings and cut them in lengths to be used as spouts. He heated a length of wire red-hot in the old fireplace and forced it through the entire length of each spout forming a channel through which the sap could drain. One end of the spout was whittled down a bit for convenience at a later stage in the process.
When the sap was rising just right my father hitched the team of horses to the farm sled and loaded in all the troughs, spouts, an auger, along with a hammer or two and we headed for the maple sugar grove a half mile away. We drove through the grove dropping off a trough at each tree until all were distributed, being very careful to keep the inside of each one as clean as a pin. We bored a hole in the tree about two feet from the ground and drove the small end of the spout into the hole. Immediately, the rich, sweet sap began flowing through the spout dripping into the pine trough below.
Two or three times a day we had to empty all this sap from the troughs into a barrel on the sled and store it until we had collected enough to fill the big boiler already set up over a dugout furnace in the side of the hill near the house. Huge piles of wood were ready to keep the fire roaring under the boiler the entire day, while the sap rolled and boiled, gradually turning a golden soft brown as the hours dragged by.
The greenish white foam that boiled up every second had to be skimmed off in order to improve the flavor of the finished product. The grownups took turns manning the skimmer, for it was a tiring task to stand there in the smoke and heat from the fire, while our backs would be freezing from the frost. We made the skimmer by punching a dozen or so holes in the bottom of an old pie pan. The holes allowed the juice to drain back into the boiler, while the "skimmings" held in the pan were dumped out on the ground. The pie pan was fastened to a long handle of a discarded broom so the tender could stand away from the hot, boiling sap to avoid getting scalded. It took forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup, so you see the greater portion boiled away and escaped as steam. It boiled vigorously until it was reduced to about two or three per cent of the original volume.
Near the end of the day my father would begin testing the syrup every few minutes to see when it was the proper consistency for "stirring off." When it reached that stage he pulled the fire out from under the boiler, let the syrup cool a bit, then poured it into various containers properly covered, and stored it away in the kitchen cupboard. The next morning for breakfast we would have country sausage with a big platter of fried eggs, hot biscuits and real butter doused with a plate full of maple syrup the likes of which we had not tasted since last year.
If you've been eating imitation-flavored maple syrup that comes from the grocer's shelf in a glass bottle, you're missing a delicacy that's never found outside a country kitchen close to a sugar maple grove.