So much about maple syrup is uncanny. Surprising. As Gregory Bateson would say, “every schoolchild knows” that sap is the lifeblood of a tree, bringing nourishment (water, sugar, nutrients) from the soil up to the branches, leaves, and fruit. But why did humans figure out that one tree’s sap had so much to offer? How? The invisible grace of maple syrup, which only comes from the species acer saccharum, is the high percentage of sucrose: these are sweet trees. Just sugar maple, not silver, not Japanese, only marginally red or black. And just in the northern forests of the New World. Here are the forests of trees full of running sweet sap, and only for one or two months a year, in a time of warm days and cool nights.
Somehow people living in the densely wooded areas now named New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario discovered the hidden gift of sugar maples. Maple sugaring long predates the establishment of strong national borders between the United States and Canada; fur trappers and traders were aware of and possibly trading syrup by the early 1700s. In Vermont there is evidence that the Abenaki taught the colonists how to gauge the sugar maple tree with an axe and then use bark buckets to collect the sap. By 1749, other settlers were writing about harvesting sap and boiling it down to maple syrup in large ironware kettles. Now a practice known to many, sugaring has become a visible part of communities and landscapes in the northern region.
Stereopticon Images, Vermont, 1890, Special Collections, University of Vermont.
Once “captured,” the transformation of sap to syrup became a shared experience, an essential part of rural life and livelihood, seen in sugaring parties in sugar shacks and cabanes à sucre and annual maple syrup festivals found around the region. Although trees have long been bountiful for food, this has been primarily in the form of fruits and berries. Extracting the elixir of the tree or plant to add flavor seems to cross the boundaries between edible and inedible, or perhaps more accurately, to confuse those boundaries (notoriously porous across cultures, but still, the sap of a tree?).
And then there is the purpose of such an elaborate extraction and reduction process: sweetness above all. Could we live on maple syrup alone? Should we? But could we live without it, especially those of us who live through that short season of warm days and cool nights, and witness the brilliant reds and yellow hues of the maple leaves during fall? For us moderns this is not the cheapest or easiest sweet stuff but yet we stay committed. In fact, maple syrup is increasingly in demand, as other sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar) seem fraught. And so centuries after any first accounts of sweet trees, sweet sap, and sweet syrup, the practice continues throughout the northern forest.
Maple syrup, thus, is not simply an artifact of the past, but is a part of everyday life. Making sense of maple in the saturation of sweetness that defines modern cuisine is now part of the work of all sugarmakers. Part of the modern story is to explain that maple syrup is not just sweet, it is delicious. Describing the taste of maple syrup is difficult; especially when we are endlessly pursued by sweet flavors, found in almost every processed and packaged food. In an interview, long-time sugar maker Francis Howrigan said, “I’d have to stress the maple flavor and a lot of body to it. It’s the same as anything. People taste today or eat today, but do they taste? You put the syrup in your mouth and you swallow it. You should have a good, sweet maple taste afterwards.” Sugar makers know that not every batch of maple syrup will taste the same; what else can we expect from a truly wild food? Much of the joy and pain of the sugaring season revolves around just what sort of syrup emerges after the sap has been harvested and then boiled down to a viscous liquid. Every year brings new surprises.
Lighter syrups can seem floral, or have vanilla notes, or evoke the smells of maple leaves that have fallen on the forest floor. Meanwhile, the maple flavor of darker syrups, depending (among many possibilities) on the location of a sugarbush or the amount of time the sap takes to boil down into syrup can taste woodier and earthier, with even a hint of mushroom. Soil, tree, slope, weather—it all makes a difference to the taste of maple syrup. But how do we connect such elemental forces to our actual sensory experience? In the sensory moment of tasting maple syrup, experience and knowledge often move down divergent paths. Perhaps because tasting seems invisible (individual mouths are closed) we don’t know how to pay attention.
And the type of attention paid to “taste” by most scholars is limited, both in form and content. So much of the contemporary research on food ends up falling into a facile critique of sensory evaluation and discernment reducing the total sensory experiences and meanings to the “performance” of status and identity. This, to me, is reductionism that fails to take account of the multi-layered meanings that reside both in any given sensory object (maple syrup), the sensory context (the northern forest, the sugaring parties) and the receiving subject (Vermonter).
In my work on the taste of maple syrup, the social, the aesthetic and the environment are unruly guests that want to be heard. Need to be heard. If I want to, as Michael Jackson puts it, “do justice to the lived complexity of experience,” all three contexts to the experience of tasting and talking about maple syrup need to be at the table. In my long term research collaboration with Vermont sugarmakers, a sensory scientist, the maple expert at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and others, Jackson’s further claim that anthropologists should “avoi[d] those selective redescriptions, reductions, and generalizations which claim to capture the essence of the lived” has been validated. Our sensory panels, sensory discussions, and sensory observations demonstrate that tasting maple syrup is always shaped by social context, although not necessarily determined by that context. We think that neither the physical or social qualities of Vermont maple syrup are reducible.
We began our research seeking to make sense of the taste of maple syrup as embedded in both natural and social contexts. We wanted to embrace syrup’s taste complexity, not, as often has been the case, to funnel it into one singular description. In our many sensory panels, tasting hundreds of maple syrups, we found incredible diversity of flavor, aroma, taste and mouthfeel. Our decision, therefore, was to create a sensory map of maple. The map reflects such sensory diversity but it also creates a case for it. We decided not to determine but rather to guide. The Map of Maple is being distributed to sugarmakers, chefs, retailers and others in Vermont to bring social attention to the unique deliciousness of maple syrup. Our research could guide tasting and talking about maple syrup, to make visible the social, the aesthetic and the environment. Will this work? Only time will tell.