February 07, 2012

Sap Run! Maple Sugaring at the Enos Kellogg Homestead

For those of you who don't know her, my wife likes to tell stories.  Elaborate stories that, no matter how unlikely they seem on the surface (and they often seem extremely unlikely), she swears to be true.  In the interest of full disclosure, most of these stories seem to have at least some verifiable basis in fact, which is extremely annoying whenever I attempt to debunk yet another remembered episode that took place when she was one-and-a-half years old.  Whenever I call her out on a particular tale, one of her family members inevitably confirms at least the gist of the story.  Although my take is that this "verification" is indicative of nothing more than a genetic memory defect, or a long-term gas leak in her childhood home (think about it Van Leeuwen family, it would explain a lot), it makes it impossible to decisively disprove most of her stories. 

Having dispensed with that elaborate background, I will now underwhelm you by distilling one of Jenny's "unlikely-but-true" stories to its barest essence - when Jenny was a kid, her family raised chickens at home. 

Now, this would not be worthy of note had Jenny lived  in the country, on a farm, on a big piece of land, or even among 21st century Brooklyn hipster foodies craving house-made omelets crafted from locally-sourced, hormone-free, sustainably-raised, organically-fed, free-range, non-genetically modified heritage Lakenvelder laying hen eggs (By the way, I'm pretty sure that anyone who arrives in Brooklyn in skinny jeans is issued 23,000 hyphenated adjectives to sprinkle liberally throughout any sentence describing what they ate for lunch.  What's the deal with that?).  Anyway, Jenny lived not in the country, not on a farm, not on 10 acres, and not in modern-day Greenpoint.  She lived on a fairly small lot in beautiful but decidedly suburban Greenwich, CT.  While that type of backyard animal husbandry is not that uncommon today, based on what her old neighbors have told me, in early 1980s Greenwich, it was only a cee-ment pond removed from Beverly Hillbillies territory.  Apparently people looked somewhat askance at the crows of a rooster emanating from a stately Victorian. 

Anyway (and this is where I'm going to tie the preceding meanderings together into something that actually relates to what this post is about.  Seriously, I know you don't think I'm going to pull this off, but I've got this under control), Jenny's explanation for the chickens is that, having grown up in Queens, her father viewed their fractional-acre property as rural countryside that should be fitted out with the appropriate agrarian accessories.

Not surprising given her formative experiences living as minimally-landed gentry, Jenny believes that our 1.7 acres should be put to work.  Somewhat more surprisingly, I agree with her, for the most part.  As I see it, our land was a working farm for 150 years, and I like honoring that legacy.  In addition, we have a barn and a reasonable amount of open space, and I can't quite suppress the hope in the back of my mind that somehow, someday, we might be able to get an agricultural tax break if we play our cards right (Attention Department of Agriculture readers - if you would like to pay me not to plant crops on our "farm", please leave a comment below).  So, the Enos Kellogg House now has a large and not so successful vegetable garden, a patch of wildly successful blueberry bushes, a mini-orchard of slowly maturing apple, peach and cherry trees, a bee hive, and plans to eventually get chickens.   And, as of last February, we are a working maple sugaring enterprise. 
Tapping Trees, 1940 - from the Library of Congress Collection

Allow me to explain that final endeavor.  For Valentine's Day last year, I bought for Jenny a maple syrup starter kit consisting of three sap buckets, three metal spiles (the tap that gets driven into the tree) and an instruction manual.  I know - a hackneyed, overly-conventional gift.  We all know the stranglehold that the maple sugar industry has on the Valentine's Day gift giving market (I'm sure you'll all recall Linus railing against it in that old Peanuts Valentine's Day special on CBS), but I just couldn't resist their relentless commercial pressure.

Within minutes of opening her gift, Jenny had inventoried the sugar maples in the yard.  There are quite a few - 6 or 8, including some very large, mature specimens.  This embarrassment of arboreal riches necessitated the immediate purchase of additional spiles and buckets, and fuelled elaborate plans for industrial-level syrup production. 

It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.  This meant that we would need substantial sap storage facilities, commercial cooking facilities and lots of time.  For days, the two of us, our kids and Jenny's brother collected sap, emptying buckets into coolers buried in snow banks (sap spoils, who knew?).  Unable to resist a test batch, Jenny conducted the first boil in our kitchen.  Not a good idea.  Boiling down from a 40 to 1 ratio means that a tremendous amount of humidity is released into the air.  Needles to say, it was tropical in our kitchen for quite some time.  We also learned the hard way that the difference between sweet, amber maple syrup and smoking black char is a matter of seconds.  Having boiled and boiled and boiled, Jenny picked an unfortunate time to become distracted by a particularly engaging episode of Survivor, only to be reminded of the syrup project by the wailing of our smoke alarm.  Luckily, the firemen who responded were quite understanding. 

Sensibly, the next boil took place outside, in a horrible sugar shanty that Jenny and her brother constructed in our driveway.  Forget any quaint Currier and Ives images - this looked more like a meth lab.   The lessons learned from this first outdoor boil were varied:
  • Sap can take days to boil down, especially when your propane burner is not working properly.
  • Propane is freaking expensive.
  • Tarps hung over ramshackle syrup production facilities should be made of a non-flammable material.
  • People get grumpy when they have to get up every couple of hours and go outside in a cold drizzle in order to add more sap to a pot that is boiling slowly in a squalid sugar shack (People being Jenny - I slept like a baby every night).

Sadly, the first outdoor boil ended in smoking black char once again.  Not to be deterred, Jenny and her brother (I had long before distanced myself from this particular project) tried one more time, and at last produced what really was phenomenal maple syrup.  Beautifully colored, sweet and mapley.  In a blind taste test against the fancy 100% Vermont maple syrup from Whole Foods, Jenny's syrup was the undisputed champ.  Unfortunately, the first two false starts had significantly depleted the sap reservoir, so the final output of the 2011 vintage was fairly limited.  It was also probably more expensive than gold on a per ounce basis.  Sap collection equipment + propane + ruined boiling pot + fire department false alarm charge + filters + bottles and caps + untold hours of time adds up to a number too high for me to want to contemplate (This reminds me of a great book, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden.  Any would-be gardeners should give it a read).  But, at least pancakes were extra delicious for the next few months while our artisinal syrup supply lasted, and we got months of conversation fodder for social events.

So, with Valentine's Day fast approaching, and with the necessary combination of freezing nights and warm days occurring regularly, Jenny has begun preparations for the 2012 sap run.  Sunday saw the construction of a new but still hideous boiling facility in our driveway.  Any day now, the taps will go into the trees and the process will start again.  This year, I promise to have delicious pancakes waiting for the firemen when they inevitably visit us once again.

For anyone interested, here is a short video of sap dripping.  It's brought to you by the same filmmakers who previously directed "Watching Paint Dry" and "Evaporation - in 3D!".  I would also recommend that you check out www.tapmytrees.com.