Pardon me if I wax slightly sappy in this post. I’m talking about maple syrup so a little sap doesn’t seem inappropriate.
I like to think of cooking as a folk science. The science part is indisputable. Most cooking tasks—whisking, boiling, baking—are simply applied chemistry. We read books to help us figure out just the right formulas to create using our culinary versions of test tubes. Sometimes we experience a scientific breakthrough and discover a new formula in the kitchen.
Nevertheless, many of our most beloved formulas for cooking have been handed down to us, like a family story or a favorite lullaby. Perhaps the best analogy is a folk song.
My neighbor, composer Alice Parker, uses this analogy a lot. She points out that we don’t know who wrote a song like “Wayfaring Stranger.” In fact, the very definition of a folk song is that the composer and lyricist are anonymous. A song like this belongs to all of us, and we re-compose it every time we sing it.
(A choir director for whom I once sang that very song at a Lenten service thought I re-composed it a little too much, in fact, but I stuck to my guns and my version of the melody.)
Folk songs cannot be copyrighted, although arrangements of them can. Similarly, it is impossible to copyright a list of ingredients, but one can copyright the words one uses in the directions for a recipe. We don’t value folk songs or recipes any the less because they are not “original.”
In fact, we often value them more because they have sprung up in different places and been modified as they go from singer to singer, cook to cook. We certainly value not having to come up with something completely new every time we get out the guitar or the saucepan–although we enjoy improvising on the songs and recipes we have received from others.
Musical tradition and culinary tradition are miracles we celebrate every day.
At this time of year I’m particularly grateful for the tradition of boiling down the sap of sugar maples. Just as it’s hopeless to pinpoint the very first person who ever opened his or her mouth and sang “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger” (or “I am a poor wayfaring stranger” or any other version of this lyric) it’s impossible to figure out who first made maple syrup.
We assume it was a Native American since the original residents of New England were sweetening their food with maple long before Europeans arrived. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how the first maple syrup came to be made. Did someone accidentally poke a hole in a tree that was near a cooking pot and then notice that the resultant food tasted extra sweet? We’ll never know.
I do know that my neighbors who have sugarhouses do what they do in large part because it is part of the history of their families and of this region.
I’m lucky to live in a place where a folk food tradition like maple still exists–where people are willing to do the hard work necessary to nurture the trees, maintain the sap lines, and boil (and boil and boil and boil) the sap. And I treasure the liquid amber they produce.
Here is another recipe that celebrates that tradition and the diversity of dishes one can make with New England’s folky, sappy mud-season staple.
Maple Glazed Carrots
I love stretching the uses of maple syrup beyond breakfast and dessert. These carrots get a lot of sweetness out of just a little syrup. (And they’re easy!) Feel free to use whole cut-up carrots instead of baby ones if you like.
If you want to add to the feast of flavors, add a little minced fresh ginger to the maple mixture—or toss some fresh dill on top of the carrots when you serve them. I think the dish is pretty terrific as is.
28 baby carrots
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons sweet butter
Bring the baby carrots to a boil in a pot of lightly salted water. Boil them until they are ALMOST done. (This won’t take very long.) Put 2 tablespoons of the water in which they boiled in a small sauté pan. Drain the carrots, discarding the remaining water, and rinse them in cold water to stop them from cooking any longer.
To the 2 tablespoons water add the maple syrup and butter. Heat this mixture until the butter melts. Add the carrots and toss them in the liquid. Continue to cook over medium-low heat, covered but tossing frequently, until the liquid almost evaporates (about 5 to 10 minutes). Serve immediately. Serves 4.