The Best Way to Sample Fresh Maple Syrup Involves Pickles

Once a year, Vermont locals join together to sample the freshest maple syrup with the help of some unusual ingredients.

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Mar 28 2016, 6:06pm

It was a sunny afternoon in early March and the kitchen of Broad Brook Grange in Guilford, Vermont was kinetic. Carole Mills, the secretary of the Grange, had been there since 9 AM with Don McLean and Marli Rabinowitz prepping the food and space for the evening's festivities. Bowls of potato salad and coleslaw were set aside, platters of ham were waiting to be arranged, and Don's maple-soaked baked beans had been simmering away for hours. At 3 PM, Elly Majonen burst through the doors carrying tray upon tray of freshly baked dinner rolls. Using a Pillsbury recipe from 1946—complete with her grandmother's notes tucked neatly in the margins—Elly had spent the past few hours in a nearby church kitchen churning out 800 rolls (plus a tray of warm, yeasty cinnamon buns—a special treat for volunteers).

Everything was running smoothly, except for one glaring problem: the view outside was a dry, brown landscape that hadn't seen precipitation—much less snow—in weeks. With just hours to go before the annual Sugar on Snow Supper, one of the star players was MIA.

Marli-Rabinowitz

Marli Rabinowitz and her famous dinner rolls.

At the peak of sugaring season (a quick few weeks in March, sometimes late February, rarely April) in small towns throughout New England, the community gathers in firehouses, church basements, and old meeting halls for a magical event called the Sugar on Snow Supper. After getting into a traditional New England buffet, it's time for the main event: a plate of snow, a plain doughnut, a bowl of dill pickles, and a cup of steaming hot maple syrup. A pour of syrup over cold snow creates wonderfully sticky instant-taffy that can be rolled around a fork and eaten. And then, when your teeth are stuck together and your tongue is coated in sugar, a good bite on a pickle clears everything right up and you're ready for round two.

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Don McLean and his baked beans.

It was the end of a disorienting winter, with more tropical weather than snow flurries, and the weather had been tough on maple syrup producers everywhere. Maple trees begin storing starch in their roots with the first freeze of autumn and it's that starch, mixed with ground water from melting snow, that produces sweet maple sap in the spring. It takes an astonishing 40 gallons of sap boiled down to create just one gallon of maple syrup, so without the natural progression from bitter winter to the first hints of spring, the taps had been flowing inconsistently and Guilford was missing, as Marli Rabinowitz called it, "natural, organic snow, complete with pine needles!"

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Homemade cinnamon buns for the volunteers.

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Stirring up the maple syrup before the event.

But if maple syrup is the blood of New England, then the Sugar on Snow Supper is its beating heart. And nothing—rain or shine or lack of snow—could stop the community from enjoying a centuries-old tradition because Guilford resident Richard Austin had been storing a pile of snow under a tarp in his backyard. After a large snowfall in January, he had scooped off the top layer and started building a four by eight-foot mound. Then, out of sheer willpower and a lot of luck, he kept the snow insulated under a tarp for six weeks, occasionally adding to it when a fresh layer fell. When Austin pulled up to the Grange in his truck and unloaded 13 garbage bags of beautiful white stuff, I felt like I was witnessing a tiny miracle.

The Guilford Sugar on Snow has three seatings—a tight turnover of 5 PM, 6 PM, and 7 PM—that each accommodate 85 diners. When I returned just before the final seating, the Grange was bathed in a warm glow and the old glass windows were spilling orbs of light and peels of laughter into the yard. Inside, I met Sylvia Morse, who has been attending Guilford's Sugar on Snow for 85 years. Like a true Vermont woman, she goes to as many as three other Sugar on Snows around the state each year and even holds her own at home. Dick Clark has attended for all of his 74 years, except for a brief period when he was serving in Vietnam. For New Englanders, this is a true celebration of their favorite crop.

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We settled into our seats at a long table as platter after platter of food quickly appeared: baskets of Elly's dinner rolls, bowls of Don's sweet and savory baked beans, packed plates of deviled eggs, piles of coleslaw and potato salad, a platter of sliced ham, and hot coffee. Our waitress, Mary, would periodically stop by to drop off more eggs, rolls, and coleslaw. She had run a tight doughnut-making operation on the Friday night before the supper—a seven-person assembly line, two pots of oil frying away, and 40 dozen doughnuts from scratch in two hours using an old recipe that's been passed through the Grange for decades.

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Then, as if on cue, a stream of volunteers marched out with packed bowls of cold snow and ceramic pitchers of steaming maple syrup. Mountains of Mary's doughnuts and plates of pickle spears were right behind them. Sitting at that table and slowly tilting the pitcher over the snow took me back to another lifetime: visits to Parker's Maple Barn in New Hampshire, streams of syrup and sleepy pancake breakfasts, making maple candy in the freshly fallen snow at recess, and attending events just like this one. Sugar on Snow is a moment to pause life and play with your food, to get your fingers stuck together and leave the maple drips in your beard, to laugh at old men greedily drowning their snow in syrup and women daintily rolling sticky ribbons of maple around their forks, to snack on a pickle when you feel like your teeth are going to fall out from the sweet and coyly say you couldn't eat one more bite before reaching for the pitcher and another doughnut.

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There's one thing you have to understand about Sugar on Snow: no one knows how it began. There are folktales of an early New England settler accidentally spilling a drizzle of maple syrup from a boiling pot onto freshly fallen snow, which seems as close to the truth as anything. And it's an easy line of reasoning to figure that smoked hams, sacks of potatoes, and fresh eggs were the winter sustenance of our ancestors. Doughnuts were probably a rare treat, fried in precious fat for special occasions like a celebration supper at the end of sugaring season. But how did a pickle get involved? Clark guessed that it was an attempt to fill out the table with one more thing from the cellar, a happy accident that worked. "It's like a ritual," Marli told me later. "New people come in and follow the set traditions. It's what our grandparents had and it stretches back." Just like all peculiar traditions, it goes so far into the past that it's always been there.

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Casey Elsass is the author of the newly released cookbook, Maple Syrup, published by Short Stack Editions. He is also the founder of Bushwick Kitchen, makers of Bees Knees Spicy Honey, Trees Knees Spicy Maple, and Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha.