There’s Nothing Simple About Syrup

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Hale Farm and Village serves up pancakes with a side of history

words and photos by Andrew Leask

It is a cliché to say that a culture tells its story through its cuisine. The popularity of Travel Channel food shows and Food Network travel shows attests to how taken the public has become with this idea. One should bear in mind, however, that food alone cannot tell the whole story.

Maple sap bubbles away inside Hale Farm’s sugarhouse. (PHOTO: Andrew Leask/The Devil Strip)
Maple sap bubbles away inside Hale Farm’s sugarhouse. (PHOTO: Andrew Leask/The Devil Strip)

Take maple syrup, which arrived on the modern breakfast plate through the combination of a foundational Native American insight—that the sweet sap of maple trees could be reduced to make sugar—and the technology of European settlers, which made it possible to manufacture on a large scale. Embodied in syrup, the two cultures coexist peacefully in a way they rarely managed to do in real life. It’s a sunnily optimistic—if not terribly nuanced—take on American history that plays out over a stack of pancakes.

For a more in-depth view into the history of this American staple, it’s worth visiting the Maple Sugar Festival at Hale Farm and Village.

Hale Farm and Village, located on 90 acres in Bath, Ohio, is home to 32 historic structures, most of which have been relocated to the property in the interest of preservation. The farm and village serve as a living museum, with interpreters providing an interactive educational experience to its approximately 100,000 visitors a year.

Visitors to the festival, which takes place in mid March, will be treated to a pancake breakfast. Afterwards, they can explore the farm, witnessing firsthand the labor-intensive process of turning the clear, watery sap that flows from maple trees into thick, golden syrup. They can meet historical interpreters like Jeffrey Jones, who plays an early 19th century farm worker called Obadiah and demonstrates how to tap a sugar maple using his trusty tomahawk. Inside the sugarhouse, they will see how the collected maple sap is slowly reduced in a large boiling tank and learn how settlers adapted production techniques first developed by Native Americans.

Star and Bright, Hale Farm’s oxen team. (PHOTO: Andrew Leask/The Devil Strip)
Star and Bright, Hale Farm’s oxen team. (PHOTO: Andrew Leask/The Devil Strip)

Though Hale Farm no longer produces maple syrup for sale to the public, it makes enough to give its visitors a taste. Also of interest to visitors are the farm’s oxen, Star and Bright, named after a pair of oxen in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel Farmer Boy.

Altogether, the attractions and exhibits at the Maple Sugar Festival will help to give a larger context to a substance that is often taken for granted. It’s easy to ignore the long and complex history of the foods we eat, or the intensely laborious processes that may go into producing them. But to explore the history of our food—to take that search for knowledge beyond the breakfast table—can reveal a lot about the place where we live. Hale Farm and Village shows that the history of maple syrup is the history of Ohio—that of the settlers who made their home here, and of the native people that were here long before them.

Maple syrup has a story to tell, but there is far more to it than meets the taste buds.

 

The Maple Sugar Festival at Hale Farm and Village will take place on March 12, 13, 19 and 20, from 10 am to 4 pm (breakfast will be served until 3 pm). Admission ranges from $5 for members to $15 for adult non-members. For more information, visit halefarm.org.

 

Andrew Leask prefers eating his maple syrup with a side of waffles, not the other way around. He writes fiction in the company of his wife, Amy, and their two cats, Monty and Nigella.

 

 

 

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