Sunday, March 28, 2010

Maple sugaring

J.’s idea for Saturday, March 13, came from the Chicago Botanic Garden—a visit to Naper Settlement in Naperville, an hour plus west of Chicago. According to their site, they were celebrating Maple Sugar Days, when the sugar maple sap runs, the trees are tapped, and the collected sap is boiled and processed until it yields its rich sugary goodness.

Naper Settlement, a “museum village,” is not the remnants of a real place, but an eclectic collection of unrelated, reconstructed vintage buildings, including a log cabin, frame houses and shops, mansion, smithy, churches, and so forth. As a whole, they don’t represent any one place or time except the American past.

After a detour to the gift shop, we were accosted in the tavern by three or four giddy teenage girls who fell over themselves to serve us maple syrup over ice (Grade A for me, B for J.). In the yard of the fort, we found a teenage boy watching over an old-fashioned, round-bottomed pot of maple sap smoking heavily over a fire. He told us it had been on the fire since 9:00 a.m. (it was now about 3:30 p.m.). As we walked around later, we noticed the trees that had been tapped. They don’t do anything with the boiled sap but toss it. I didn’t hear why, but I suspect it’s because it isn’t prepared according to contemporary FDA standards for public consumption. It’s important, especially now in this age of shrink-wrapped groceries, to be reminded of, or perhaps learn, where food comes from—the earth and its life, not manufacturing plants.

At the log cabin, an older volunteer described family life in such cramped quarters and the objects used to maintain it. Today’s individualist can only marvel at the social standards and adherence to them required for several people across several generations to live in two rooms (one up, one down) in peace during the long midwestern winter and the more blustery parts of spring and autumn. I wondered how much indoor work they had to distract them and what it was like to sit in that little house with no television, radio, or music except the kind you made yourself with your voice and what primitive instruments you happened to have or could make—just the sounds of the wind, the rain, the grasses, the leaves, the sleet, the birds, the animals (large and small), night and day, day and night. If the inhabitants wanted music, they had to make it themselves; even in their entertainment, such people would have to have been self-reliant—an idea that would stump many of us today.

We thanked him and escaped to the outdoors, where we listened to a modern-looking carillon across the way and wandered among some of the other buildings, now closed as it was past 4:00 p.m.

Altogether it had been a dreary day, with few visitors around due to the lateness of our arrival and the unrelenting chill, wet weather. But maple sugar season reminds me of a day when I was perhaps 7 or 8 years old—that impressionable age—and our class made a field trip to a sugar maple farm. I don’t recall many details, but some snow may still have lain on the ground, the air was misty, and spring was not in the air.

Everything enthralled me—the comparative quiet of the country, the trees, the taps, the vat of sap, how and when sap runs and how the craft of collecting was learned from the Indians, and especially the farm’s team of draft horses, which I loved best of all as they steamed in the frosty air. Even now, the flavor of maple sugar candy (the real thing—no substitutes) whisks me back to a time when I was young and simple, my feelings were real and unmasked, and a different place could seem like a different world. That is one of my fondest, deepest memories.

But that was 40 years ago, and Naperville would never be mistaken for a different world. After we stopped at Marbles: The Brain Store (where J. was apparently too shy to ask for his wished-for transplant) and Le Chocolat de Bouchard, we dined on earthy fare at Borrowed Earth Café in Downers Grove, where we were heartened to see an enormous line winding around several blocks of people waiting to get into a classic downtown theater. (This was so fascinating that we missed the restaurant several times.)

And so home and to dry out and rest.

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