Everyday Forage: Urban MIDWEST: Sugaring & Spring Maple Candy
Tapping maples is one of the most wonderful delights to engage with perennial plants in urban, suburban, and rural spaces as the seasons start to transition and reawaken. Humans across the globe have generational cultural ties to maples; Acer, for not only its natural sweetness, but also medicinal and nutritional properties. Maples contain essential minerals, including calcium, zinc, magnesium and potassium...something most likely not expected from something that tastes so goddamn good! There's countless accounts across the globe of culturally salient sugaring precesses and relationships with Acer.I'd like to share a few of these stories before hopping into our maple sugar candies.
Being that I'm engaging with maples on Ojibwe, Odawa and Potowatamii lands, I'd like to start off by respectfully sharing the culturally salient relationships between Ojibwe communities and Maple. Maple tapping, otherwise known as sugaring has been practiced for centuries. When the season arrived Ojibwe communities would move with their families into the sugar bush for tapping season. (Isn't that incredible! To work as a community, harvesting one of nature's best sweet treats and sharing! I just love that this was a communal ritual with and for the collective). An 1855 account documented by German ethnographer, Johann Kohl noted: “They (Ojibwe people) are fond of mixing their meat with sweets, and even sprinkle sugar or maple syrup over fish boiled in water." Within Iroquois tradition, legend has it that a chief once threw his tomahawk into a maple. The next day the warm spring weather encouraged the sap to flow. The chief put a bucket to catch the sap and then cooked meat within it. As the meat cooked a lovely maple syrup started to form and penetrated the air while caramelizing the meat (MMPA). Today, in Detroit there are indigenous, black, and various cultural communities gathering together as a collective to restore and reclaim this beautiful, sacred ritual of sugaring within Detroit. Unfortunately, there have been documented accounts, made visible through Antonio Rafael's instagram, that despite city permits and contacting the fire department, city police interrupted and shut down the sugaring event this 2022 season. Exact reasons for this shutdown are unclear, at least on my end, but it's to show the lengths we collectively need to grow in order for us all to reconnect and reestablish our natural rhythms, culturally salient foodways, community engagements, and rituals here in the Midwest.
Much like the Ojibwe and Iroquois, along with many indigenous communities here in the US, South Koreans have both ritualistic and communal events surrounding the maple sugaring season. Documentation of the technique of extraction is surprisingly similar within both the South Koreans and Iroquois communities harvesting with a "V"-shaped incision made within the tree. In South Korea a large bamboo leaf is wedged within the incision and used as a funnel to run into wooden earthen tubs. It is believed that maple sap is used to cleanse the internal body in the spring. Communities would get together and drink 20 liters/ about 5 gallons of maple sap in one sitting! Yeo Manyong, a 72-year-old ( now 85 ) South Korean farmer explains:
“You keep drinking while, let’s say, playing cards. Salty snacks like dried fish help because they make you thirsty. The idea is to sweat out all the bad stuff and replace it with sap”(Sang-Hun, 2009).
All this research had me curious to experiment and cook some meat with maple sap. If you don't have fresh sap at home with you, consider diluting maple syrup 1:40 as it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. I'll be working with sugar maple, Acer saccharum, however all maples can be tapped, they just have lower sugar quantities than Acer saccharum. Boxelder, sycamore, birch and walnut can all be tapped and will be covered throughout the season. My brother-in-law was coming to town so I ended up making a shredded maple-chicken layered with a mistura de especiarias or "spice mix" I got while in Madeira, Portugal. This blend contains: paprika, sweet pepper, turmeric, fenugreek, cumin, ginger, saffron, cinnamon, and garlic. If you're like me and like a bit of heat, you can add some jalapeño thinly sliced and added at the end or stewed in the pot if everyone is in culinary agreement. I found this Portuguese blend to be a perfect compliment to the slightly sweet maple sap boiled chicken...I think everyone else would agree :) served on a bed of white rice and topped with cilantro.
This Shredded Maple chicken was serves on a dear friend and local potters dish-ware: littlefireceramics, made in Wisconsin:) I'd highly you pick up a few of Jess's pieces-we went to University together.
Pictures above is maple syrup that never quite reached its solidifying point so was made into maple sugar--
a week of slow drying and stirring for a delicious preserve to eat with meats, desserts, and veggie glazes.
Spring Maple Candy
This is my second season sugaring on a small urban scale here in metro-Detroit. Not having grown up with the process, nor making my own candy, it's taken me some experimentation to be able to create maple candies. The first two batches I made were unsuccessful due to the guess-timate/impatient/eager side of me thinking it was ok that the boiling sap would harden at 225 degrees F vs the recommended 235 degrees F...it did not :)... but all was not lost. The first batch I ended up making into a version of the culturally salient birch sap ferment Ukrainians would drink in березень, (March). To read more about this process, please visit the Birch ferment blog post (coming soon). The second fail was used to create maple sugar. The slightly hardened sap would crystalize, but fall apart from the molds. This may be due to the type of syrup I was using, however, I think it's most likely due to not reaching its necessary heat temp. Third time is the charm...I hope you enjoy!
Densmore, Frances. Strength of the Earth: The Classic Guide to Ojibwe Uses of Native Plants. 1928. Reprint, St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005
Hoffin, L., Säumel, I.2014. Orchards for edible cities: Cadmium and lead content in nuts, berries, pome and stone fruits harvested within the inner city neighbourhoods in Berlin, Germany. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety. 101: 233-239.
Massachusetts Maple Producers Association: Maple History. Accessed March 28, 2022
Sang-Hun, C. 2009. In South Korea, Drinks Are on the Maple Tree. New York Times.