Thursday, February 28, 2013

Maple sugaring (II)

Last week I wrote about my family's maple sugaring tradition. Today I'll add an amendment: while we love most of the maple sugaring process (tapping trees, collecting sap, boiling it down in the evaporator), we have a hard time with one part: finishing the syrup.

This is the part where the syrup has been boiled to the right consistency, but you have to filter out the minerals and sediment in order to package it. First you heat up the syrup to the boiling point, and then you run it through a wool filter. It's a long and slow process, mostly because the syrup gets all gummed up in the wool filter (what with residue and all that). Once you finally have enough syrup, you have to heat it up again in order to hot-pack it. Still, this is nothing more than filling fresh pint or quart bottles and sealing with a special cap. It's much less involved than canning.

So yes, my family loves one long and slow process (boiling), but somehow we can't make ourselves love another long and slow process (filtering). I know, I know. The idiosyncrasies of the human mind!

As a result, we've made syrup for years without going through that final step. Since the syrup's never been hot-packed, we have to keep it in the freezer. So we have a freezer full of maple syrup.

Ah, problems.

Just before I flew back to Rhode Island, my dad and I spent an afternoon and evening filtering and packaging a few quarts of syrup. We discovered it's best to do this when you can walk away for a while; that way, the intensely slow drip of the filter won't drive you completely insane. In fact, it was actually kind of fun.

But while this process may seem extremely old-fashioned and back-to-the-land, it's actually a "modernized" version of the earliest maple sugaring. The Chippewa and other Northeastern Native American tribes were the first to harvest maple syrup, long before the Europeans set foot in North America. The Chippewa collected sap in much the same way as we do--a makeshift spile let sap drip into a bucket, and it was boiled until syrupy--but they created a different end product. Instead, they turned most of the syrup into granulated maple sugar, which was more easily stored throughout the year. By working the syrup in a special trough, they could turn it into fine granules that were then stored in birch bark containers. The Chippewa drew on this store throughout the year for ceremonies and special meals.

No matter which way you finish, maple sugaring is a labor-intensive process that shows you where your food comes from, beginning to end. And that's something to savor.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Maple sugaring

In our family, February and March are the maple syrup months. Temperatures dip to freezing at night and warm up during the day, so the sap runs easily from the trees. Evenings are spent out in the sugar shed, boiling sap down to golden syrup in a gas-heated evaporator. On weekends, we enjoy pancakes with maple syrup fresh from boiling.

My parents started this grand maple sugaring experiment the year I was born. Initially it was a small operation: one or two taps in the trees, yielding just enough sap to boil on the stove. My dad reminisces wryly about the time he forgot the sap on the stove while he was painting the nursery, and the pot boiled over into a sticky, burnt mess. Since then the project has slowly grown. My dad transitioned to a secondhand evaporator (a channeled metal container that heats up the sap evenly), and we invited my first-grade class over on a field trip. (Fifteen little first-graders standing very close to a hot metal evaporator...there was at least one melted winter jacket.) We helped tap trees and ate cornbread with fresh maple syrup.

After we moved to a new house, the improvements continued: refined heating apparatuses, a new evaporator, special sets of plastic bags to collect the sap. We've visited bigger farms during Maple Madness, Northeast Ohio's maple sugaring festival (yes, it's that big here). We've seen a huge farm that collects sap via plastic tubing, with special machines that jump-start the boiling process; we've shyly toured an Amish operation that heats entirely with wood. There are so many options for processing sap, and yet there's nothing I love more than our own.

Dad's trying out bright blue polyethylene bags this year. They're not as scenic as those metal buckets you see in postcards, but they're much easier to empty. When we've collected enough, we hike back to the red sugar shed in the backyard to start boiling. In some ways, this shed is the culmination of this ongoing project: a rustic space set aside just for maple sugaring, warmed by a wood stove. When I was in high school, Dad set up a radio and speakers out in the shed so we could listen to the oldies station and sing along while we watched the sap. I've since run off with that radio, but standing around in the quiet listening to the sap boil is perfect in a different way. We have a chance to talk, and sometimes Mom hikes down to take photos, and I get the sense that this is one thing that will never change.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Staying warm

I flew back home to Ohio on Saturday night, and after staying up far too late talking with my parents, we discovered that the house had its own welcome-home present to offer: a broken furnace. Plus, Northeast Ohio was going through a cold snap...which meant the temperature could get down to a bracing 3 degrees F at night.


My dad quickly took charge, being the engineer and all-around handyman of the family. He soon learned that we couldn't get the part needed to fix the furnace until Monday morning, so we would have to wait out Sunday in an increasingly cold house. He and I trekked out to Sears to purchase three oil-filled space heaters, which took all of five minutes to set up and plug in. We couldn't light a fire in the fireplace because the heat would actually suck warmth out of other parts of the house. (If we had a wood stove, that would be a different story.) So we all bundled up in sweaters, vests, and blankets, and turned on the faucets to keep the pipes from freezing. But we had a bracing day. As my mom pointed out, while trying to warm up her hands after scrubbing pans in very cold water, "I think this is how you get chilblains!"

The repairman just left, so our furnace is up and running again. And all in all, we weren't that uncomfortable. But this adventure made me wonder how people warmed themselves in the past. So I did some research, and here's what I found:

  • A roaring fire in the fireplace was the best way to stay warm in colonial America.
  • When it was time for bed, you could take the warmth of the fireplace with you by filling a warming pan with hot coals and snuggling it under the covers.
  • If there were cracks in your cabin, you could dab on some clay to keep the wind (or snow!) from whistling in.
  • In the 17th, 18th, and even 19th centuries, folks took foot stoves with them on frigid carriage rides or to church on Sundays. They were basically boxes filled with hot coals. You could also take a hot stone with you if you were poor.
  • Layer! Long underwear, woolen petticoats, thick stockings, and quilts all kept the chill out.

Personally, I'd kind of like to have a warming pan to take to bed on chilly nights. What about you? How do you keep warm in the winter?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dining at Downton: Irish stew

I am known to get emotionally involved with fictional characters. When they fall in love, I swoon around the house. When they suffer heartbreak, I moan along with them. When they struggle to figure out what they really think about an important issue, my mind gets muddled and filled with conflicted emotions. When they die, I am crushed.


Yes, I am talking about Downton Abbey. No major spoilers here, but after episode 4, I lay on the couch for about half an hour babbling about how my heart had been ripped out and stomped on. How unfair this latest twist was! How could the writers take away one of my favorite characters! Death in the WWI trenches, I could understand. The Spanish flu, I could see coming. But this? My friends, it's been over two weeks and I'm still recovering.

As viewers, we're entitled to some serious comfort food to help us deal with this latest tragedy. And it's also time to give Branson his due.

Branson--or "Tom," as the more enlightened family members have to remind others to call him--burst into Downton as the revolutionary Irish chauffeur. Now that he's married Lady Sybil with the dubious blessing of Lord Grantham, he's slowly becoming a full-fledged member of the Crawley family. And this most recent twist of fate has him growing up fast. He's finding the right time to be a rebel and the right time to smooth things over with the family, and it's hugely gratifying. As one of my colleagues said, when hinting at things to come in Downton Abbey, Branson really stands up in this season. In just a few episodes, he's become one of my favorite characters.

So, in honor of Branson, and to soothe our aching hearts, I've put together a comforting Irish stew that our former chauffeur would be glad to find at the dinner table. It's an incredibly simple, easy recipe, one that calls for a few hours of simmering on the stove. With just six ingredients, I wasn't expecting much, but the slow cooking lets all the flavors melt together. The result is a tender, rich lamb stew that falls apart at the touch of a spoon.

Also, in case you're like me and need newspaper articles to remind you that none of this is, in fact, real, here's a fun interview with the actress who plays Mrs. Patmore. She talks about who actually does the cooking on set, and how much of the kitchen is functional, and who corrects the kitchen hierarchy when it goes awry. Who knew Mrs. Patmore was the Gordon Ramsey of her day?

Irish Stew
(adapted from Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management)

1 1/2 lbs lamb shoulder on the bone (the original calls for mutton, but lamb will do just fine)
3 cups water, with more at the ready
2  lbs russet potatoes, peeled
2 yellow onions
salt and pepper to taste

Place the lamb shoulder in a medium Dutch oven, sprinkle with salt, and pour in the water. If needed, add more water to just cover the lamb. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to low heat, and let simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Meanwhile, slice the potatoes and onions thinly.

Remove the lamb from the Dutch oven and cut the meat off the bone into small, 1-inch chunks. Skim the fat off the broth in the pot. Place a layer of potatoes in the bottom of the pan, and cover with a layer of onions. Scatter the meat on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover with another layer of potatoes and onions and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bring the stew to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to low heat, cover, and let simmer for 1 hour. Stir occasionally to prevent bottom layer from burning.

Serve with fresh bread and cheese, plus plenty of beer to soothe your aching heart.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Valentine's crafts

Dispatch from the blizzard: we survived, with nary a power loss! Others in Rhode Island were not so lucky, and I'm thinking of those wrapped up in blankets or staying in emergency shelters. It's going to be chilly tonight.

We stayed indoors most of the time, watching the snow fall and catching up on shows or reading. After the worst of the snow had stopped Saturday morning, we joined our apartment neighbors in shoveling the two feet of snow out of our shared driveway. Someone turned on a car radio, and someone else made a Game of Thrones joke ("Winter is coming." "Dude, winter came."), and all in all it was actually kind of fun. But today, man, my arms are sore. Also, we have twin pillars of snow on either side of the driveway, which makes getting in and out an adventure. Josh thinks it looks like the entrance to Mordor.

I took advantage of the quiet weekend to make some Valentine's crafts. My sister and I have this funny tradition: every Valentine's Day we mail each other fake cards from celebrities. So in the days leading up to the holiday, I haul out my pretty papers and rubber cement and troll the Internet for a handsome photo of Lissa's latest celebrity love. (Or of someone who could pass for a celebrity love. Sometimes we have to get creative.)

It started when I was in college, when we were both bemoaning our single fates and she was still suffering through high school Valentine's Day frenzies. (There is little that can make you more aware of your singledom than watching other girls at your all-girls school receive flowers from their boyfriends at the front office.) I made Lissa a card from our favorite Norwegian singer, and thus a tradition was born. I have a pile of the cards she's sent me over the years--James Dean, spymaster George SmileyRooster Cogburn (sometimes these are more tongue-in-cheek)--and they make me laugh.

This year's card I'm keeping a surprise, but it was great fun cutting out paper and writing silly messages in beautiful ink. No offense, Josh, but this might be my favorite part of Valentine's Day.

If you were stuck inside during the snowstorm, how did you keep yourself busy? Do you have any Valentine's crafts to share?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Scarlet fever and other Little House stories

We're battening down the hatches here in Rhode Island: there's a blizzard on the way! Josh and I both have a snow day (it never gets old), and we're planning on waiting out the storm with movies, books, and cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven.

Winter storms always make me think of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, where the Ingalls family (and Almanzo Wilder) have to weather a brutal winter in the Dakota territory. We're not slated to get 11 feet of snow as the prairie did that winter (yes, really!), but when the snow drifts pile up, I can't help but think of Pa tying a rope to the barn so he can feel his way back to the cabin in the driving snow. What is it about those books that sticks with you long into adulthood?

There's been some buzz in the news recently about a pediatrician who uncovered the medical truth about Laura's sister Mary losing her sight after a bout of scarlet fever. The cause of Mary's blindness is mentioned only briefly at the beginning of By the Shores of Silver Lake, but it's devastating. How can an illness, one that kids still get today, make you go blind? I remember struggling with that concept as a child. The pediatrician did, too, but during her medical rotations she learned that it was impossible for scarlet fever to cause blindness. So she set off to uncover the truth.

You can read or listen to her discoveries on NPR, and it's a fascinating story. What might otherwise be a minor family tragedy stayed with countless young readers for generations, and encouraged one of them to dig into the past.

I'll be thinking about this story today, and lots of other more wintry stories from Little House. What Little House tales have stayed with you?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Afternoon adventure: Blithewold Mansion & Gardens

One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon (especially in the gloomy winter months) is visiting house museums. Typically these are grand old mansions that have been converted into museums for the public, like the mansions in Newport. Lissa and I grew up visiting 19th-century mansions, and we loved wandering the halls, admiring the rich furnishings and deep-piled carpets, hearing juicy stories about the houses' former inhabitants. Luckily, Rhode Island is full of these grandes dames.

One quiet afternoon in December, I drove down to Bristol to visit Blithewold Mansion & Gardens. Built in the English country manor style, it was originally owned by the Van Wickle family, namesake for the gates at Brown. The Van Wickles had their share of tragedy--patriarch Augustus died in a skeet-shooting accident--but they spent many happy summers at Blithewold, too. Now the house is open to the public, and a preservation society protects both the mansion and the extensive gardens attached.

The house was decked out for the holidays when I visited. Since daughter Marjorie Van Wickle traveled to Europe in the early 20th century, each room featured souvenirs from her travels, like picture postcards and Baedeker guidebooks. Visitors could move around the house at their own pace, and I took my time in each room, admiring the carved wooden furniture, the embellished prints and watercolors. The travel souvenirs were a special thrill--in college I wrote my senior thesis on women traveling to Europe on the Grand Tour. Deciphering the old-fashioned script on the postcards was like visiting an old friend.

Afterwards I walked around the dormant gardens and stared out to the water. There's something very peaceful about wandering the grounds of a mansion in winter. The entire estate seems muted, and when you're outside you feel like the only person in the whole world.

I was definitely in a class of my own that day--much younger than the elderly women touring the house with their friends, much older than the little girls having tea in the dining room. House museums are apparently not that popular among the twenty-something set. But the generational gap actually added to my experience.

What I love most about these visits is the feeling, however fleeting, of being transported to another era. Maybe for a moment I imagine it's 1903, and all these smiling people in photographs are still alive and well. Or maybe I get a strong memory of my grandparents and how comforting it was to visit them when I was little. For a moment I'm out of time. And when I need a break from the daily grind, there's nothing better.