The simple beauty of syrup

August 06, 2014

Clean. Simple. Functional. Iconic. Designed. Wow. As a product designer, these words conjure up images of sleek desire-inducing products, products which rarely find their ways into the lives of the 99 percent. But that is not what this blog is about. Well, sort of.

Yesterday, the summertime babysitter was preparing breakfast for my daughter — a standard breakfast of pancakes with syrup. I had placed the pint-sized jar of syrup on the counter for her to use, but she stared past it and asked where the syrup was. When I pointed to the glass bottle, she said in perfect 13-year-old style “Well, THAT’S unexpected. Why is it in that bottle?” I pulled out my phone and showed her some of the pictures from this spring’s syrup boil. It was rewarding to leave feeling like I taught her something about the work and reward of making something. How Maker. How DIY.

You see, our family has always had access to a sugar bush and this how I and now my kids have always known maple syrup. I cannot remember the last time I purchased syrup. The more I thought about the pictures I showed the babysitter, the deeper my appreciation for the process and the tools used grew. Sure, I recognize that I love the process of making maple syrup as much as the final product (which is amazing), but it’s the ritual — and the timelessness of the tools which we use to create our finished product — that make it truly iconic.

Consider the tap and bucket. This may be the one truly unchanged piece of the process that has remained EXACTLY the same as when I was a child, which usually isn’t the case with things anymore. You tap the tree, it directs the sap, and it holds the bucket. Pure simplicity. The “peck-peck-peck” of the clear and nearly tasteless sap filling up the base of a metal bucket in a snow-covered forest is the closest I can say that I’ve ever gotten to my own personal Norman Rockwell moment.

I love the process of making maple syrup as much as the final product, but it’s the ritual — and timelessness of the tools we use — that make it truly iconic.

All ages are welcome and encouraged to walk the woods to inspect the buckets — to which anyone will shout out “jackpot!” when they discover that the bucket is filled. The only rule is you cannot move more than you can carry — a spilled bucket of sap in a 200 hundred tree sugar bush is a crime — especially considering it can take up to 43 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. So to make moving it easier we simply use repurposed five gallon buckets.

The process of moving the sap from the bush to the sugar shack has changed somewhat. The galvanized five gallon milk pails have been replaced with a plastic holding tank. The old Allis-Chalmersfarm tractor is now a compact CASE, but the filter is still the exact same one from the farm circa 1950. But overall, fundamentally so little has changed.

And of course, there is the boiler. It’s still a hand-crafted pan stoked with collected firewood underneath. There is no thermometer, only the constant eye on the boil monitoring the sugar content, and making sure it never scorches. As a child, I remember standing next to the huge pan watching the golden boil, the steam rising from its surface. Over the years, my dad has made a few functional improvements — a holding tank that warms the sap prior to going into the boil so as to not disrupt the boil temp and enclosing the firewood to keep the heat more intense. But the ladle to taste test still hangs on the side of the shack.

So why juxtapose the first paragraph with the sharing of my personal account of the yearly boil? Because although the aesthetics of the process and tools is much different than one might first think of when they hear words like clean, simple, functional, iconic, designed, that is exactly what this age-old process hinges on. And looking at that bottle on my counter does make me realize that I am in the privileged one percent, and the product is defiantly a WOW.

Written by Sherry Eckholm