I recently finished a course called History of Quality, which basically touched on the diffusion of ingredients and flavours across the world and the evolution of what and how we eat. From the Columbian exchange to the postwar acceptance of canned foods and the invention of Betty Crocker (who wasn’t actually even a real person) to how “yuppies” are influencing the coffee industry, I learned a bunch!
That said, the culminating project consisted of doing our own brief research on a food item, an iconic cookbook that has shaped history and a controversial food advertisement. Needless to say, it was interesting comparing my classmates' findings with my own… of course, everyone wanted to choose foods and cookbooks related to their culture, so I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I wrote about the history of maple syrup.
It’s sweet, sticky and synonymous with the Canadian identity. Though there are no written accounts of when maple sap was first discovered, it’s believed that the Indigenous peoples of northeastern North America were the first to discover and produce maple syrup.
Recognizing it as a source of energy and nutrition, tribes would harvest maple at the beginning of spring as temperatures thawed. Incisions were made in tree trunks where a piece of bark would be inserted, allowing sap to drip into wooden buckets. Once the buckets were filled, they would be left outside to freeze, enabling the sugar to separate from the water as it turned into ice.
As maple cultivation grew, sugar shacks were built creating a space for sap to be boiled with hot stones (and later over a fire) to make syrup. Sap collection, however, was an on-going process; buckets were returned to the spouts for as long as sap remained sweet based on the thaw period.
Because maple was a staple of the aboriginal diet, used as a condiment that mimicked the European use of salt, it’s not surprising that there were many rituals around maple during this time including the maple dance, celebrated during the first full moon of spring, called the Sugar Moon. There were also maple sugaring parties following the spring thaw.
By 1680, European settlers and fur traders were also involved in harvesting maple (cane sugar from the West Indies had to be imported which was costly and took time), but their methods were less traditional, using manual drills to create tap holes.
As the years passed and technology advanced, buckets were eventually replaced with plastic bags and oxen replaced with tractors to move large quantities of maple to sugar shacks. Modern filtration was also perfected and vacuum pumps replaced traditional taps in the turn of the 20th century. Presently, the production of maple syrup is done mainly by large companies, with Quebec being the major maple maker in North America (and globally), producing over 6.5 million gallons of syrup each year.
Given the value of this commodity, maple has even been at the centre of a money heist in 2011 where $18.7 million worth of syrup was stolen from a Quebec storage facility and replaced with water.
From a political standpoint, the consumption of maple syrup also has a rather interesting history. During the time of American Civil War, maple played a role in promoting anti-slavery movements. Since sugar cane and molasses were produced by slaves, many abolitionists consciously chose to use maple syrup instead. Interestingly, following WWII, when sugar rations were low, maple was also heavily promoted as a sugar substitute in the United States, boosting production in both the U.S. and Canada.
While maple syrup is steadily being consumed thanks to advertisements boasting the antioxidant-rich natural sweetener, this commodity is facing a major threat due to climate change. Increasing temperatures result in changes to the freezing and thawing cycles that directly affects sap flow and sugar content, rendering it bitter. Though advanced sap collection technology is currently being investigated to support maple production, the lack of maple is a larger issue in terms of food culture and sustainability. Since maple syrup is a traditional food source for many indigenous tribes, we have to act in order to protect its cultural relevance and culinary history for the future.
So there you have it! I hope you learned something new about what tops your Sunday pancake stack. Keep in mind, I’ve removed references for easy blog ready purposes, but trust me, I did my fact-checking, readers!
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Is there a food that you’d like to learn more about? Share it below and it might just be my next exposé piece!