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Tag: history

Oh, maple syrup! You’re arguably the northeastern United States’ best contribution to world cuisine and the perfect soulmate to fluffy pancakes, but how did you get where you are today? Well, it’s an interesting story!

Native Americans were the first to tap maple trees for sap in North America. Different nations have many different legends about who struck upon the brilliant idea – ranging from kings to deities to everyday people to even a squirrel. Seventeenth century Native Americans enjoyed maple products plain and used them as a sweetener and flavoring in recipes. One of our favorites is Iroquois strawberry juice. Mash it all together or for a modern version, just combine strawberries, water, and maple syrup to taste in a blender, blend, and enjoy.

When European colonists started arriving in the Americas, they took to maple sap collecting immediately. However, for them it was more for the delicious maple sugar that could me made from it than for the syrup itself. Pure cane sugar in the colonial era was not easy to come by. The sugar from the British colonies in the Caribbean was expensive and the sugar from French Louisiana was wet, moldy, and miserable. When colonists protested unfair taxation by boycotting British luxury items, they nearly stopped buying Barbadian sugar altogether and the demand for maple sugar experienced a brief boom.

Americans continued to use maple sap primarily for sugar until the 1860s. Around that time the price of cane sugar produced by enslaved workers was so low that maple entrepreneurs decided to try to build an audience for maple syrup. They introduced metal sheet pans to replace inefficient boiling kettles, evaporators to concentrate sap, and other technologies that improved both the price and quality of their product. Their efforts paid off and maple syrup gradually became a beloved breakfast institution.

Nowadays the technology used by major syrup manufacturers is very advanced. They may use everything from vacuum pumps to reverse osmosis machines, but they still need to start with suitable maple trees just like folks did three hundred years ago. Canada makes a whopping 80% of the world’s maple syrup. Vermont makes the most of any state in the U.S., followed by New York. Maple products are also big in Japan, where they’re both produced and enjoyed.

If you’re an avid maple syrup fan like we are, it might surprise you that the majority of American grocery shoppers overwhelmingly prefer “maple-flavored breakfast syrup” to the real deal. Scandalous, isn’t it? But then again, most of the country isn’t fortunate enough to be surrounded by maple trees, maple producers, and traditions celebrating this tasty and quintessentially American treat. Here in the Catskills on the other hand we have lots of options. Tomorrow, for example, Shaver Hill Farm is hosting the second weekend of its 24th Annual Maple Open House just twenty minutes from the Colonial Motel. There will be an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, horse-drawn carriage rides, and other family-friendly activities. Hope to see you there!

Party like it’s 1888! On February 2nd, treat yourself and your family to the 30th Annual Ice Harvest Festival at the Hanford Mills Museum. You’ll take part in a good ol’ fashioned ice harvest while enjoying ice fishing, sleigh rides, blacksmith demonstrations, and hands-on art lessons. Then warm yourself up at the bonfire or at the soup and chili buffet.

Ice was considered an important “winter crop” in the days before refrigeration. Enterprising ice harvesters would cut blocks about eight inches deep out of the frozen surfaces of lakes and ponds and store them in saw dust for months. Then, when temperatures began to rise, they would sell their ice to families and businesses who needed it to keep their food fresh. Amazingly, people would even throw the huge blocks of ice into rivers and arrange to have an associate pull out the smaller, slightly melted blocks near cities downstream where you could make a pretty penny selling ice in the sweltering summer months.

It was the otherwise somber Quakers who introduced ice cream made with winter-harvested ice in the British colonies. It quickly caught on as a festive and expensive delicacy. Ice cream was sold in shops in New York City and other big cities. One summer George Washington famously spent $200 – the equivalent of over $5,000 in today’s money – on this delicious dessert.

The Hanford Mills Museum is located in East Meredith, NY, approximately half an hour from the Colonial Motel in Grand Gorge. Open for tours in the warmer weather, the museum is a historic landmark for being one of the last intact nineteenth century mills in the state. Please see their website for more details.


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