There wasn’t much snow on the fields around Palmer’s Sugar House last Saturday for the season’s inaugural sugar on snow fest. What frozen crust there was had a besotted, mud-season look, discolored by soot and fine particulates. This was not snow you even wanted to think about licking, much less drizzle hot syrup on.
The Palmer clan was undeterred. Their Shelburne sugar house has an ice shaving machine, which produces something akin to real snow — a bit coarser, sure, but at least it’s clean. Besides, the main point of the ritual is to eat the sugar, not the snow. Once you’ve eaten the sugar you can simply toss the snow, and the mavens of sugar on snow etiquette will not complain.
Unless you toss the pickle with it. That’s not OK.
People new to the Vermont-sugar on snow experience tend to ask the same question, said Holly Rivers, who was in charge of boiling the syrup that Saturday. They’re handed a bowl or plate loaded with the famous troika: sugar on snow, dill pickle, doughnut. Then they look up and say: “Why the pickle?”
“Sweet and sour, sweet and sour,” Rivers recited.
Not so many people ask about the doughnut. Most Americans know instinctively that doughnuts never need any justification. Rivers has one, though, just in case:
“Savory,” she said.
The sugar on snow event, which continues at Palmer’s on weekends into April, is a Palmer family tradition. David Palmer, the current patriarch who has a day job as an insurance agent, recounted how his grandmother, Marjorie Palmer, got started sugaring around 1945, in the face of the World War II sugar shortage. She became an sugaring expert and wound up in the Maple Hall of Fame (a Free Press profile in 1998 called her a “grande dame of maple.”) Her son, David, a dairy farmer, took up the cause on a spread the family owned in Shelburne, and he became an expert, too.
After the elder David died two years ago, it fell to the next generation to carry on the family sugaring tradition. The Palmers still have about 3,000 taps. That Saturday, the evaporator was turning out Grade A dark amber, which they planned to sell for $57 a gallon.
Shortly before the sugar on snow debut, they were all rushing to get ready. David the younger (the insurance agent) was helping his 5-year-old daughter, Lilly, get set up to help in the kitchen. Holly, David’s sister, was tending three pots on the stove — one of which she was bringing up to the prescribed sugar on snow temperature (232 degrees F).
Mike Rivers, Holly’s husband, was tending the steam-billowing evaporator at the other end of the sugar house, where the syrup-generating temperature was at 219 degrees. Michele Palmer, David’s wife, was in the kitchen spreading maple glaze on doughnuts. Meghan Hanley, a younger cousin of David’s, was at the cash register. Brad Wainer, a neighbor, was running the ice machine and stacking bowls of ice in a freezer.
Nobody knew how many customers would show up — maybe 100, maybe 150. That first day turned out to be busy. Less than an hour after the noontime opening, the queue at the counter ran all the way back to the evaporator and bent back around.
Sugar on snow, at $5.50, was the big draw. The doughnuts came from Koffee Kup, the pickles from Costco, and the sugar from one of Holly’s pots. There were other offerings, too: Maple hot dogs (stewed in syrup), fried dough, maple cotton candy.
Jane Thompson, 79, of Essex, was one of the early customers. Sugar on snow was what she came for. She grew up on a dairy farm in Derby. Her dad had a sugar house, so she remembers the sugar on snow back then.
Was it on real snow? she was asked. She paused between bites of her doughnut.
“You better believe it,” she said.
A little history
A lot has been written about sugar, and a lot about snow, but not so much about sugar on snow.
Who threw the first sugar on snow party? Who introduced the pickle? These are not questions that have preoccupied the sugaring historians, but who knows, maybe an enterprising cultural anthropologist could work them into a Ph.D. dissertation.
A superficial review of the literature suggests that anthropologists have been divided over whether the American Indians were boiling syrup to make sugar before the Europeans arrived. Did the Indians teach the Europeans to sugar or vice versa?
At some point long ago, in any case, the Indians of the Northeast are known to have been collecting maple sap and boiling it to make hard sugar, which could be readily stored and transported. We now know that the boiling temperature to make sugar cakes — the Palmers call it Indian sugar — is about 244 degrees. (The prescribed temperatures vary somewhat with barometric pressure.)
Back before anyone had thermometers, there was a way to tell if the syrup was hot enough. Andy Baker, who cut his sugaring teeth in Townsend and Charlotte, and who now gives sugaring demonstrations in his capacity as administrator of a farm park near Kirtland, Ohio, describes it this way:
You “make a loop from a twig stick, (put) it in the molten sugar and blow through it like blowing a bubble. According to one account, when you could get a strand of sugar three feet long the sugar was ready,” Baker wrote in an email. He cited an 1845 oil painting by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, “Sugaring Off,” that shows a man blowing a sugar ribbon.
But syrup hot enough to form a sugar ribbon is too hot for sugar on snow quality. As Holly put it, you don’t want the sugar on snow to be pulling off the crowns of customers’ teeth.
So, how did the early settlers — or the American Indians, for that matter — know when the boiling syrup was just hot enough for sugar on snow? They’d drizzle it on the snow, and if it stayed on top, in a waxy form, it was ready. If it sank into the snow, it wasn’t hot enough.
Johann Georg Kohl, a German travel writer, detailed sugar-making by American Indians in a book published in 1859. He described how they made grain sugar, and cake sugar, and “wax sugar,” produced by throwing thick-boiled sugar onto snow. Kohl is cited in Helen & Scott Nearing’s “Maple Sugar Book” (1950) a comprehensive work on that pays scant attention sugar on snow.
Betty Ann Lockhart’s more recent book, “Maple Sugarin’ in Vermont: A Sweet History” (2008) offers an engaging, carefully researched account of the enterprise but doesn’t have much to say about sugar on snow either — except for some tantalizing illustrations, from Indian children pouring hot syrup on snow, to a Currier & Ives print of 1856, “American Forest Scene,” that seems to depict sugar on snow eating, to the von Trapp family of “Sound of Music” fame convening outdoors over snow, apparently with pickles and doughnuts.
Lockhart, who lives in Charlotte, said sugar on snow parties have long been a spring rite — a communal way to mark the end of winter — but she couldn’t say when the pickle and doughnut made their appearance. She wasn’t aware of many historical references, but she did seem to recall that there was a sugar on snow-party scene in “Little House in the Big Woods,” a children’s classic by Laura Ingalls Wilder published in 1931.
“Little House” describes life in “the Big Woods of Wisconsin” in the 1870s, as Wilder herself experienced it. Sure enough, in Chapter 8, “Dance at Grandpa’s,” there’s this: The children go outside with plates and scoop up snow, then go back in the kitchen, where grandma “poured hot syrup on each plate of snow. It cooled into soft candy, and as fast it cooled they ate it.”
Then there’s this:
“When they had eaten the soft maple candy until they could eat no more of it, then they helped themselves from the long table loaded with pumpkin pies and dried berry pies and cookies and cakes. There was salt-rising bread, too, and cold boiled pork, and pickles. Oo, how sour the pickles were!”
No doughnuts in the old-time Wisconsin variant, apparently.
Fast-forward to contemporary Quebec — which is, after all, the world’s leading maple syrup producer. sugar on snow — “la tire d’érable sur la neige” — is a longstanding tradition there, too. Paul Rouillard, assistant director of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, called it a custom that’s in people’s blood.
“(E)ach spring, a lot of urban people go in sugar bush in the sap house to have sugar parties (parties de sucre)” he wrote in a series of emails. “First, people go in the sap house for eating scrambled eggs, beans, pancakes with a lot of maple syrup on, bacon rinds (oreilles de crisse) and little roasted potatoes. These meats are all prepared in the kitchen of the sap house. And after this huge meal, people go outside for the dessert with the famous maple taffy on the snow.”
No pickles or doughnuts, but who would have room for them anyway?
Back in Vermont, the pickle remains an important part of the tableau. Michael Lange, an associate professor at Champlain College and an anthropologist, has been researching the meaning of maple and sugaring to the identity of Vermont. As he considers “the communal and ritual process of sugar on snow,” he comes back to that inevitable question from the newcomer: Why the pickle?
“In so doing, that person marks themselves as not part of the community, while at the same time providing the community an opportunity to enroll them,” Lange wrote in an email. “An answer is given to the question (‘the sour pickles cut through the intense sweetness of the sugar on snow’), and the outsider is brought into the shared identity. The ritual of sugar on snow not only maintains the connection between Vermont identity and maple, but it also allows newcomers to encounter Vermont and maple is a communal way.”
There’s something else that’s special about sugar on snow, wherever it’s made. It can’t be bottled or preserved or exported. You just have to be in the right place and the right time to experience it.
You better believe it
At Palmer’s Sugar House, the the picnic tables were all occupied.
“It’s something special,” said Edith Heiss, visiting from Germany, of her sugar on snow. “Unusual for me. Strange, but I like it.”
Many of the sugar on snow eaters were kids. Adults were more likely to go for the maple dogs
“These are the best hot dogs ever,” said Jeff Strawbridge. He was eating his second as his wife, Jill, and his daughter, Reeves, did sugar on snow.
At another table, Garrett Gruendling, 11, was apparently enjoying the sugar (“Good!” he pronounced), but gave his pickle to his dad, Kurt. Kurt was eating a maple dog that he said was “unbelievable.”
On the other side of the room, Jane Thompson was eating her sugar on snow and recalling the old days in rural Derby, back in the ’30s and ’40s. Did they have sugar on snow parties back then?
“You better believe it,” she said.
She thought maybe the pickles and doughnuts were made at the farm, but she couldn’t recall for sure — maybe the pickles came from the general store.
She had a clear memory, though, of what they did with the hot syrup.
“We poured it on the bank,” she said, meaning snowbank.
So, what did they do then? Stick their faces in the snow to eat the sugar?
“We had forks,” she said.
They were civilized, back then.