By Melissa Pasanen, "A Vermont Picnic,"July/August 2008
In early spring, I stood in northern Vermont under a bright blue sky watching a teenager tap a sugar maple while his parents and grandparents looked on proudly. “Sugaring is just as much a part of me as the color of my hair,” the young fourth-generation sugarmaker said later over maple-crumb muffins in the farmhouse kitchen. “Every family has its own stories. For me, growing up sugaring is a big part of our story.”
Maple syrup is part of many Vermonters’ stories but, like other longstanding food traditions across North America, it is threatened by both environmental and societal factors and has been labeled “at risk” by the Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) project. Maple Syrup nation—one of 13 “foodsheds” outlined by RAFT—stretches from eastern Quebec and inland Maine to the northwest corner of Indiana, with the entire state of Vermont and most of New York State and Pennsylvania at its heart. It is named in honor of the sugar maple, which has shared its sap since native peoples first discovered the lightly sweet, clear liquid and simmered it down into syrup and sugar. Unfortunately, climate change, acid rain, creeping development and invasive species have threatened the sugar maple.
Veteran sugarmaker Burr Morse, 60, of East Montpelier, Vermont, has been sugaring since he was a boy. The last 20 years have been a struggle: “Weather just stopped happening right,” he explains. “If sugaring goes away, then I go away,” he says simply. “It’s not only important to the economy, it’s important to the temperament of the people here.”
Most of Maple Syrup nation was settled by homesteaders who had to diversify to survive. They grew their own vegetables, dry beans and grains; planted fruit and nut trees; raised chickens, pigs and sheep for wool and meat; and always had a milking cow. They hunted game and gathered berries, grapes, dandelion leaves and fiddleheads. To sustain themselves through the long winters, they canned summer’s bounty and stored apples, potatoes and other root vegetables and cured pork in root cellars, attics and barns.
The growing season was full of hard work, but dishes like some of the following recipes might well have been spread out for all to share at a community barn-raising or a church picnic. Picture a hearty bean and tomato salad made, perhaps, with Vermont Cranberry beans and sun-warmed orange Oxheart tomatoes. Or an earthenware bowl of freshly dug and boiled new Early Rose potatoes tossed with cob-smoked ham and the buttermilk left after butter-churning. You might find a platter of crisp-crumbed chicken and a basket of warm Cheddar-cornmeal biscuits made with stone-ground flint corn grown since the time of the Abenaki Indians, who lived in what is now northern New England and southern Quebec. There would be pie and giant jugs of ginger-spiked switchel—the preferred drink for hot, dusty summer work—chilling in a nearby stream.
The heirloom varieties of beans, tomatoes, potatoes and corn that would have been on the table are among the foods RAFT has deemed worth reinvigorating for their unique contributions to both our culinary and broader cultural heritage. “We, as humans, have not been given roots as obvious as those of plants,” says RAFT founder Gary Paul Nabhan. “The surest way we have to lodge ourselves within this blessed earth is to know where our food comes from.”
Anyone can play a role by searching out RAFT foods to grow or eat. Soon after Tom Stearns, 33, first started saving and growing heirloom seeds as a hobby in 1995, he was given some flint corn, which he named Roy’s Calais after the man and town from which it came. The next year his passion became his profession when Stearns established High Mowing Organic Seeds in northern Vermont, now a national mail-order organic seed company with over $1 million in annual sales. “Preservation is not just keeping something in a seed bank somewhere,” Stearns says. “Having someone actively farming it is the best way to preserve it.”
Farther south in Rutland, Vermont, Donald Heleba, 69, still works the land his family has farmed since 1926, growing about 35 different potatoes on eight acres without herbicides or mechanical harvesting. “I handsort 10,000 potatoes by myself,” Heleba says with quiet pride. “I’m not bragging, but I’m very particular.” His stock changes each year, but includes varieties like Green Mountain and Makah Ozette. Some don’t sell too well, but “I keep growing them just so I don’t lose the seed,” he says. Back when his father grew potatoes, Heleba recalls, “People bought them by the bushel. Now they buy them by the pound.” But other things are different too. “When I was in school, people used to make fun of you if you were a farmer,” he says. “It’s changed. Now they treat you like you’re special.”
—Melissa Pasanen is an award-winning freelance writer with a focus on food and farming. She co-authored Cooking with Shelburne Farms: Food and Stories from Vermont (Viking, 2007), a New York Times “notable cookbook.”