Maple season in Tritown is sweet and sour
by Sally Cragin
Illustration by Lennie Peterson
One of Hollis the Mountain Man's greater pleasures is the unexpected
blizzard. Just give him a few hours' notice, and his heart sings with the
prospect of solitude. Now that he has a mostly reliable wood-pellet stove
instead of his old coal clunker, the forecast of a 12-hour snowfall makes him
rub his work-gnarled hands with glee and say to the sky, "Let's see whatcha
Of course, this is not the mood of his friends and family. For most of the
world, talking about the weather is a way of avoiding difficult emotional
issues or complex conversational gambits. But in Tritown, you can have spring
and early summer one day and deepest winter the next. Thus the vicissitudes of
the jet stream, the Coriolis effect, and low-pressure zones sweeping down from
Canada provide all the verbal satisfaction that Menachem Begin and Yasir Arafat
must have had when carving up neighborhoods.
Hollis knows once the sugar buckets are installed on the trees, a last-gasp
Nor'easter is gathering strength beyond the horizon, because no New England
scene is complete without a picturesque mound atop the bucket covers. One
afternoon as he heads home from his shift driving the truck for Tri'd 'n` Tru
Potato Chips, he decides to count the buckets dangling from trees visible from
the road. Lore has it that you want to hang buckets on the south side of a
tree, but the tappers in Tritown festoon the trunks in any old direction.
Century-old sugar maples that two people might be able to embrace and still
not touch fingertips may have a half-dozen buckets arrayed like a hula skirt,
whereas thinner younger trees sport one or two.
As he drives and counts, Hollis begins to find the scene more and more
comical. There are parallels, of course, with his own life. Ever since he met
red-headed Nancy Levesque, his own vital fluids have been running more quickly,
making him less sluggish and prone to depression (which, frankly, is just a
part of life, damnit). Nancy likes to laugh and is good company, yet there are
times he feels that she wants to hang more buckets on his tree than he could
possibly provide sap for. Or something, he thinks, losing track of his count.
There have been several dozen buckets, and he's travelled less than a
Hollis keeps his pleasure in wild weather swings a private affair. Only Delia
Ellis Bell the Partial Yankee (there was a questionable
great-great-grandmother) knows how much he delights in holing up at the
Mountain Lair when the sky turns steel-gray and Trick and Treat the Mountain
cats transform into literal fur balls with sooty noses and paws tucked tightly
beneath them. Of course, there are supposed inconveniences. One year, ice on
the lines left him phoneless for a week; and another year, he'd left the window
of the backroom open for ventilation. It was incredible how much snow could
blow in through a two-inch gap, he later told Delia.
Delia -- now there's a weird and bizarre story. Ever since the junkman Phil N.
Leblanc clocked his brother playing pond hockey, and Whitey woke up speaking
French, Delia has been moony-eyed. Whitey is affecting a beret, a world-weary
squint, and has taken to smoking filterless cigarettes, which he holds between
thumb and forefinger. At first, Hollis thought Whitey was just play-acting, but
Whitey's concussion seems to have had permanent consequences. Hollis ran into
Phil N. at the Rod 'n` Reel one night and heard the best explanation yet.
Phil, of course, speaks with a broad Tritown accent, and is just as puzzled as
"He's the olda brutha, see?" Phil explains. "And ah mah was really young when
she had im, so she bundled him off to huh mahs in Quebec City for the first few
yeahs while she was gettin' huh nursing degree. She always said he come home
talkin' Frenchy." Phil takes a swig of his beer and wipes his forehead. "I've
been telling him for yeahs, if he wants to ask Delia out, to just ask."
"Well, guess it makes a difference if he can ask in another language," Hollis
says. "Has his, uh, condition made any difference on the job?" (Leblanc
Brothers Salvage are the leading junk-dealers in Tritown, willing to remove
anything that isn't still alive or radioactive -- but you can always ask.)
"Not so fah," says Phil N. "But I'm stahtin' to get bummed out listenin' to
Edith Piaf in the truck all the time."
HOLLIS'S AUNT WINNIE (named after Lake Winnipesaukee though she can't swim)
also regards the sky with interest. Usually, she can forecast effectively with
her right knee. Right now, it's telling her to bring in more kindling, because
many, many inches are expected. She too has been counting the buckets on the
trees and surreptitiously checking the sap levels, which are low as the
temperature is dropping, though wee frozen stalactites of sap are forming from
the cut ends of maple branches. She knows she should walk over to the church
and make sure that Lorencz the Hermit has the boiler going, but her rocking
chair looks far more appealling; and the latest installment in her
Mystery-a-Month-Club membership has arrived. One sure thing about the end of
winter. Just when you think it's over, it's not. At least there'd be an
opportunity to make sugar on snow after the storm, and that'd be one way to
lure her great-nephew Hollis for shovelling.
Sugar on Snow
The Inuits may have many different words for snow, but the newly fallen kind
is best for this dish, which requires only a saucepan, maple syrup, and a large
glass or ceramic bowl (two-quart minimum).
Fill the bowl with clean snow, making a mound with a gentle declivity in the
center (think "volcanic caldera"). Heat 1/4 to 1/2 cup maple syrup (the real
stuff, not the supermarket blends) in a saucepan on the stove. When it's
between simmering and boiling (don't boil), pour over the snow in artistic,
drizzly patterns. The resulting concoction is granular and maply -- like a
downhome version of a big-city cafe's between-course sorbet.
In a covered dish, "sugar on snow" will keep in the freezer for a long time.
Variation: transport the saucepan outside when it's ready and pour syrup on a
clean snowbank. Give the kids spoons, and they should be so jazzed up, they'll
be outside for another hour or so. Veteran maple sugarman Jim Ewen of Ewen's
Sleepy Hollow Sugar House in Lunenburg advises, "Don't forget to eat a dill
pickle with it to take away the sweetness." n
Sally Cragin edits Button, New England's tiniest magazine of poetry,
fiction, and gracious living.