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The Rise and Fall of Maple

26 January 2011 4,348 views 11 Comments

If you read yesterday’s post, you know that I’m sort of obsessed with maple syrup. Today, I want to share with you what I’ve learned about the history of maple syrup.

The Indian at Work: Maple-Sugar-Making in the Northern Woods © Bettmann/CORBIS

The Indian at Work: Maple-Sugar-Making in the Northern Woods © Bettmann/CORBIS

The Rise of Maple Syrup

According to Wikipedia, Native Americans living in the northeastern part of North America were the first producers of maple syrup and maple sugar. The Algonquin people used stone tools to make incisions in tree trunks, and inserted reeds or pieces of bark to run the sap into buckets. The maple sap was concentrated either by dropping hot cooking stones into the buckets or leaving them in the cold overnight and scraping off the layer of ice that formed on top. Production of maple syrup is one of the few agricultural processes that didn’t come to this continent from Europe.

In colonial times, the Native Americans traded what they called “sweetwater” with the new arrivals. In 1764, the Sugar Act imposed high tariffs on imported sugar, making maple sweeteners and other syrups made in North America even more popular.

During the American Civil War in the 1860s, maple syrup and maple sugar use increased as most cane sugar and sorghum syrup were produced by slaves in the south.

Sidebar: Other North American Syrups

In the southern part of the U.S., people began enjoying a different type of syrup during colonial times. Sweet sorghum crops were brought to North America by African slaves in the early 17th century. By the early 1900s, the U.S. produced 20 million gallons of sweet sorghum syrup annually. After World War II, sorghum syrup production drastically dropped due to lack of available farm labor and there is currently less than 1 million gallons produced annually in the U.S.

cane-syrup-recipes

A popular brand of cane syrup historically served with pancakes in the south is Steen’s (thanks for the tip, @edibleaustin). It’s made of concentrated cane juice through long cooking in open pots. It’s sweeter than molasses because no refined sugar is removed from the product. Steen’s has been produced in Louisiana since 1910 and is the only cane syrup manufacturer in existence today. Most sorghum grown for syrup production is grown in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Sorghum syrup and hot biscuits are a traditional breakfast in the Appalachians.

The Decline of Maple Syrup

The first brand of maple syrup that wasn’t 100 percent maple, was Log Cabin. Introduced in 1887 as a cheaper alternative to the good stuff, it originally was made with 45 percent maple syrup and 55 percent corn syrup. As more brands came along and the years went by, real maple content shrank.

Maple had a small resurgence during the 1940s, when people in the northeastern U.S. were encouraged to substitute maple in place of rationed sugar in baking. Recipe books were printed that highlighted maple as an alternate sweetener.

After the war, the march forward of new cheap syrup brands continued with Aunt Jemima hitting the market in 1966 with just 15 percent of maple syrup. By the 1970s, most brands (led by Log Cabin and Aunt Jemima of course) had eliminated maple syrup from their products, replacing it with corn syrup and artificial flavors.

Government Regulation of Maple Syrup

Most maple-producing U.S. states and Canadian provinces have their own laws regulating syrup sold in those states. U.S. states without such regulations must follow the USDA regulations. There are five USDA maple grades, including three Grade A’s (light amber maple, medium amber maple, dark amber maple) and two darker syrups, Grade B maple and a commercial maple grade. Contrary to popular belief, maple syrup grades do not indicate a difference in quality or purity. The lighter syrups tend to be those tapped earlier in the season, and the darker syrups come from later in the season and have a stronger pure maple flavor.

Photo Credit: Coombs Family Farms (http://www.coombsfamilyfarms.com)

Photo Credit: Coombs Family Farms (http://www.coombsfamilyfarms.com)

Thankfully for consumers, U.S. labeling laws prohibit imitation syrups from having maple in their names. Last year, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont’s agriculture secretary, asked the FDA to investigate whether Log Cabin All Natural Syrup violated federal guidelines by marketing itself as a natural product, noting that the ingredients included caramel color, xanthan gum — a natural thickener — and four percent maple. In September, the company said it was getting rid of the product’s caramel coloring.

Just this month, Vermont’s governor Peter Shumlin said the only maple ingredient in McDonald’s Fruit and Maple Oatmeal was extracted from the bark of a bush that is a distant relative of the maple tree. As the country’s largest maple syrup producer, making 890,000 gallons in 2010, Vermont is fiercely protective of it’s maple products.

McDonald’s Corp.  acknowledged publicly that their oatmeal does not contain a maple product as specifically defined by Vermont’s maple laws, and agreed to offer maple syrup to McDonald’s customers in the state. Starting next Tuesday, Feb. 1, customers at Vermont McDonald’s stores can request 100 percent maple syrup or sugar to be added to the restaurant chain’s new Fruit and Maple Oatmeal.

While this is a step in the right direction, a truly good faith gesture by McDonald’s would be to offer maple syrup to their customers nationwide (or even internationally). I think this calls for a maple syrup sit-in/picketing/protest of the McDonald’s nearest you. Who’s with me?

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  • http://twitter.com/ediblearia Edible Aria

    Good read! Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/ediblearia Edible Aria

    Good read! Thanks!

  • jodibart

    Thanks so much for reading!

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  • Andy Bart

    I am with you. Please advise on how to proceed on the McDonald's sit-in. I am prepared to lead the Mid-Atlantic campaign. Can even expand that role if you are short of people.

    Dad

  • Andy Bart

    Great research into the suite of Maple Syrup articles. As ex-Canadian I found your thorough research into the subject very well presented. Thanks for standing up on this important and tasty subject.

    Andy B

  • Andy Bart

    I am with you. Please advise on how to proceed on the McDonald's sit-in. I am prepared to lead the Mid-Atlantic campaign. Can even expand that role if you are short of people.

    Dad

  • Andy Bart

    Great research into the suite of Maple Syrup articles. As ex-Canadian I found your thorough research into the subject very well presented. Thanks for standing up on this important and tasty subject.

    Andy B

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