In Northern New Hampshire, seasons don’t last months, they last a few weeks at most. There’s deer season, turkey season, calving season, lamb season, the second month of January (February), and more important than all the rest (at least to me) is maple sugar season. Sugaring can last anywhere from a few days to 4 weeks, and run anywhere from late February to mid-April. For syrup sellers, a few days covers about a tank of gas, whereas a month-long season covers your property taxes and that trip somewhere warm and sandy that they’ve been eyeing for a few years. People call out of work, families gather, tall tales are told, and new ones are woven in the warmth, steam, and scent of the sugar house.
When I was a kid, I didn’t understand why I spent nearly every weekend from February vacation to tax day at my grandfather’s house. He lived alone, as curmudgeons are wont to do. Between his rotating girlfriends, belly laughs, a couple missing teeth, and lifelong love for Captain & Cokes, I didn’t much understand him. I still don’t today, but at the very least, I understood why I was there. For the most part, I only saw my grandad for sugaring, haying, and every third Thanksgiving, so when we did see him, he was happy. I was too; the rewards of sugaring were always better. My only souvenirs for haying and Thanksgiving tended to be slivers and indigestion, respectively (except in the absolute worst cases. After sugaring, I almost always came home with the telltale tan jugs with the green caps, the sign that the trees were running and the boiler was, too.
Maple trees don’t give their gift willingly. There’s an inexact science to it and a hell of a lot of finger crossing. There are a few things we know for sure. It takes 42ish (I said it was inexact) gallons of maple sap boiled for hours to make a single gallon of syrup. You place your taps and buckets (or tubes) on the south side of the tree so the sun warms the tree for the longest run. The sap runs the best when the days are 45 degrees or above and the nights are still below freezing. Outside of that, it’s still tarot cards and reading knuckle bones to figure out what the hell will happen. The last thing I know for sure is that sugaring is the best reason to gather together in winter that we have.
For most sugaring operations, you need a sugar house. It’s not just a place to warm your fingers after loading gorged, galvanized steel buckets onto a snow machine, it’s a place to gather. People in New Hampshire are known to be an ornery bunch, but sugaring brings out the best of us. That, and the bourbon/rum/brown liquor we mix into half-boiled sap. Sugaring is the closest thing New Hampshire has to a genuine Cajun Boucherie or Sunday barbeque in that the food is only part of the experience. Alongside the slow, worthwhile wait of the syrup to take its dark hue and distinct sweetness is the gathering of people you see but once a year and the gradually elaborating stories that you’ve been hearing since childhood. Once plain and straightforward, they grow into serial vignettes, each year a new truculent chapter or churlish detail. It’s always the same, it’s always different, and it’s always exactly where you should be.
There’s always some food and drink that comes about during sugaring season that you’ll be lucky enough to experience if you get invited to sugar, or that you can try at home if no one does it around you. The number one thing you have to try is a sugar stick. You will need maple syrup and the eponymous stick as well as something to rapidly cool the syrup, preferably fresh snow if you have it, crushed ice if you don’t, and if someone uses yellow snow to make it, well, you need new friends. Heat up your maple syrup until it starts to steam and then pour it in lines onto your snow. The rapid cooling will turn your syrup into a sticky, chewy consistency that, when you have it outside a sugar house, is like having your first kiss, except probably better and less awkward. Another go-to is hot syrup and donuts. Heating your maple syrup thins out the consistency and really swells the high, caramel scent of maple and combined with plain donuts, everything is right with the world. I’ve heard of heretics dipping coconut or butternut donuts in their syrup, but if you know what you’re doing, you use the underappreciated, overlooked, orange-tan donuts that look at you from the shelf like shelter puppies. There is no better vehicle for maple syrup than a plain donut. Except for pancakes. And if you call them flapjacks, you’re wrong.
My one honest to goodness recipe for maple syrup damn near got me my first restaurant job. It’s an unlikely combination, but it’s something near and dear to me, and boy is it delicious. Maple poached eggs were a staple recipe for my grandfather and are a real treat for me whenever I’ve got maple syrup around (always). If you don’t happen to have an open top maple syrup boiler kicking around, full of half-boiled sap, some maple syrup diluted in water and heated up will do. Here’s what you’ll need.
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 1 cup water
- 3 eggs
- Salt and pepper to taste
Bring maple syrup and water to a boil in a small saucepan. When it boils, cut the heat, stir mixture quickly to keep the egg from sticking, and drop in one egg. You’ll see the white begin to firm up, and it should take about three minutes for a perfect egg. Remove the egg with a slotted spoon and set on a plate covered in paper towels. Repeat for the rest of the eggs. You can do this for pretty much as many eggs as you want to, but I figure it’s best you all don’t know how many of these eggs I can down in a sitting, so we’ll say three. When I say you should do it in a sap boiler, though, I am not kidding. The kitchen copy is delicious, but it cannot possibly parallel what happens in a sap boiler. The sharp, sweet smell of the room, the steam settling into your eyelashes, and the mixture of sumptuous yolk and thickening syrup with just a touch of coarse salt can turn the stoniest of faces into a smile and also solve world peace. Maybe.
I hope these recipes bring you as much joy as they’ve brought me throughout my life. And seriously, if you’re ever invited to a sugar house, just go. You’re not just making syrup, you’re making family. Now, go eat something good.