! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Keep Manhattan, Just Give me That Countryside! began as a simple aside. My friend Jonathan Kitzen was up at the house last year, not long after I had made the trek from Los Angeles to the Catskills. He surveyed the land and (casually) commented on the fact that since there were maple trees on the property, come next year (in other words, now) I could be making my own maple syrup. Hmm.

“Really?” I responded. “What a festive idea!” and let it go at that. Little did I know what was in store. Surprised that I even survived the Winter (which bit my flat white ass like an Evil Bitch from the gaping maw of Hell itself) I observed the snow melting and began to notice plumes of steam rising into the atmosphere from various farms scattered all over the county.

“That would be sap boiling” was the answer from the very talented and fabulous Ellany Gable when I inquired as to the source. “It’s maple syrup time”, which triggered the (casual) comment from Kitzen....

I began to muse. “Was it really possible to make my own maple syrup from my own maple trees in my own back yard?” The idea seemed ludicrous, yet alluring.... Ludicrous ideas are probably better off left to their own defenses, me thinks. Hind sight? 20/20.

Internet searches began to creep into my psyche. Apparently, it was in the realm of possibilities. There are literally hundreds of sites dedicated to instructional manuals on the how-to’s of producing maple syrup from the one-man-band, boil at your own risk, (not for the faint of heart) method of maple syrup production. Remember Lucy stomping grapes? Child’s play.

According to Randall B Heiligmann at Ohio State University (shoulda been my first clue- what the hell do they know about maple syrup in Ohio?) the process is simple. A few necessities- A drill for the spouts (aka Spile) being used, buckets or bags, plastic tubing, elderberry stems, (WTF?) gallon jugs, storage tanks and various and sundry pans, pots, canning jars and materials for straining the boiled sap during the last steps of the process. Hmmm.

Being a man, it did not occur to me to read all of the instructions or feel as if I needed to follow them to the letter. I don’t stop at a gas station to ask for directions... why then, would I stop by a farm and ask for helpful hints? I guess simply assumed that I could do my own IKEA version. Tap the damn tree and the sap will flow. Hmm.

Having (admittedly) skimmed my manual, I overlooked the possibility that I might need a hydrometer (whatever that is) and that this process should always be conducted outdoors.
“The raw sap needs to be boiled at temperatures in the range of 200-230 degreesF. Steam given off during boiling carries small amounts of sap and syrup that can be very sticky” Hmmm.

I drilled. I tapped. I waited. Unless weather conditions are idyllic, there can be days when there is no sap flow. Other days can produce up to several gallons of raw sap from a single tree.("This", I tell myself, "explains why three ounces of genuine, honest-to-god maple syrup costs $28.00" The trees and buckets must be checked constantly, since there are very strict time frames involved. Too cold out? No sap for you! Too warm out? Sap can turn rancid on you in a New York minute. Too busy to check the buckets? Bucket (and highly prized contents) is overflowing and attracting insects of every shape and size.

The sap flow began slowly, teasing me with visions of Vermont and log cabins, Amish folk toiling away for tourists. I’m guessing my fingers were a bit sticky and I must have missed page 11 of the manual.

Elated that I had by now (about 5 days in) collected @ 5 gallons of raw materials, I unglued the pages only to discover that it takes FORTY-THREE gallons of sap to produce ONE GALLON of syrup and that in order to produce the syrup, I needed to boil somewhere between 16 and 28 hours at a time, adding sap to the pot as I went along, reducing it to a mere fraction of the opening bid. Hmmm.

I figure “Can’t hurt to try, I’m already a bit sticky” and so I begin. Setting up the fire outdoors (as freshly instructed) I find that to reach the temperatures necessary for a continuous roiling boil, I then have to check my pots on a minute to minute basis and continue to add raw sap as the liquid boils down, stoke the fire, tote that barge, lift that bale.

I move the process indoors “Just for a minute” I tell myself, to see if I can speed up the momentum. Well, it boiled on the stove all right. “I have a vent” I tell myself, as the steam rises into the air, neglecting the fact that we have 16 foot-high ceilings. I put the timer on 30 minutes as I work at the computer. I continue to add sap (per instructions) and feel quite pleased with myself that (against all warning) the boiling method (indoors) seems to have great advantages. About 5 hours in, I notice that the air in the kitchen seems, well....moist. as I gaze at the 16 foot high ceiling, something clear and warm drips onto my face. I look up again. I scream. “Hmm, guess i oughtta get that sap outdoors again” I rasp, as I race around the house, sopping up what is now a continuous downpour of steam, sap and syrup literally raining down on me (and of course, the dog).

I throw out yet another teflon pot, toss my second pair of shoes into the trash and begin again, more determined than ever before. I will not let a tree get the best of me, regardless of how sticky it wants to be. I dedicate items of clothing to the event. (They call me Mister Sappy Pants)

Five days and many, many gallons of raw, undiluted, tasteless sap later, I have reached "critical mass" and the once clear liquid is about to experience the magic of molecular change from sap into syrup. Having skipped page 14 altogether, I am unaware that this “miracle" takes place within a 3 minute time frame and if you miss it- you have a gooey, sticky, burnt piece of rock-hard maple candy (Oy!) at the bottom of your (once again destroyed) Teflon pot. Hmmm.

I call my mother in hysterics, to inform her that I have not slept for days and that I was quite possibly in over my head. I hauled sap, I boiled. And boiled. I spilled sap down the front of my shirt. On my shoes. On the dog. I stepped in (clear) sap and walked through the house. I picked bugs out of buckets and then boiled a bit more. At this point, I had successfully produced over one ounce of maple syrup and "was done", I shrieked at my poor Mother, "Done. No more syrup!"

She asked me how it tasted. Tasted? Had not occurred to me to check. After the six straining's through gauze and spending 2 days cleaning the floor (and dog) and tossing my second pair of sticky sneakers into the trash, tasting it was the last thing on my mind. I was still haunted by having found myself in my pajamas (during a snow storm) stirring boiling sap and weeping quietly with Liza the wonder dog (ever present) at my side.

Earlier that day, my neighbor told me had spied me screaming at a maple tree, pounding it with my fist and demanding that it start flowing. Evidently, she had observed me flailing my arms about, gesticulating wildly and calling the tree a selfish bitch. Hmm.

I hung up the phone and approached the jar holding over one ounce of golden liquid and stuck my finger in. I tasted it. I swooned. I think I wept for a brief, shining moment. I picked up my drill and my taps and my buckets and marched my sorry ass out into the yard. Had a brief chat with the trees and apologized for my outburst earlier in the day. I decided that if the tree was willing to do it’s part and flow (on a good day), then I was willing to give it another shot.

Everyone I spoke to made sure to let me know they wanted samples, even while I assured them I had produced enough syrup for (possibly) one pancake, (which I don’t even eat). Hmm.

I am now 2 weeks into the process. After spending hundreds of hours boiling, straining, collecting, cajoling, crying and throwing away clothing, I have @ 8 ounces of syrup. But this is no ‘Aunt Jemima Original Recipe” (which apparently means that it contains absolutely no maple syrup whatsoever) high fructose corn syrup, cellulose gum concoction. This is a sticky, gooey slice of heaven in a jar. Better than sex. (Hmm) This is my life now, my raison d’etre, the reason why I was put on earth.

The story is far from over. I have yet to check my buckets for the day. Time is running out, sap season is almost gone. After spending 12 hours boiling the other day, I happened to look in the mirror and saw something white sticking out from the back of my neck. Upon inspection, turned out to be a piece of cheese cloth stuck to my hair (For all you home hobbyists- maple syrup makes an excellent glue!)

I have tasted the nectar of the Gods and am undaunted in my task. I will (come hell or high water) make enough syrup to have french toast this weekend. (Or die trying, whichever comes first.) As far as sending syrup to all my friends? Yeah, right- as soon as they start spinning straw into gold.

When I told my pal Greenlee that it had been on my “bucket list” to make maple syrup before I die, he pointed out that it was probably the only thing on my list that required an actual bucket. Hmmm. Food for thought.