Image via Flickr user Chiot's Run

How Maple Syrup Played a Surprising Role in the Abolition of Slavery

The pancake topping has a remarkably political history.

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Jun 27 2018, 6:45pm

Image via Flickr user Chiot's Run

This spring, as maple sugaring season wound down in Vermont, the state’s congressional delegation was fighting new policies that would change the way maple syrup is labeled. At a May 1 press conference in East Montpellier, Vermont, lawmakers and maple producers spoke against these new guidelines. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Peter Welch, and a representative for Sen. Bernie Sanders appeared alongside sugar producers and blasted the new guidelines as confusing for consumers and bad for Vermont’s $350 million maple sugar industry.

New proposed FDA guidelines would require producers of sugar (and honey) to label their products as “sugar added.” Sure, the move toward clearer food labels could well have a positive impact on public health. At the same time, though, requiring products that are essentially liquid sugar to be labeled as “sugar added” will likely confuse consumers more than it will educate them. If you have ever encountered a bag of nuts with the warning “MAY CONTAIN NUTS,” you know that these labels don’t always make sense.

Maple producers argue that forcing them to label their product as “sugar added” would be a blow to the industry. Labeling a product “sugar added” might make sense in terms of distinguishing between Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes, but having a “sugar added” label on a product that is made out of sugar suggests instead that sugar has been added to something that is not sugar. This may indeed be correct, but the way Vermont farmers and politicians are responding to this challenge shows that words like “pure,” “natural,” and “Vermont” are doing some real heavy lifting in the world of specialty foods.

As Sen. Welch said in this press conference, “The Vermont brand is really unique for best quality.” According to their website, since 1893, the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association has been working to “promote and protect the branding of pure Vermont maple products and to serve as the official voice for Vermont sugar makers.” One of the early successes of the VMSMA, ironically, was to introduce legislation for labeling guidelines for maple syrup, stipulating that only pure maple syrup could be marketed as such—these guidelines were themselves introduced because of the existence of maple syrup adulterated with other kinds of sugars. But even with those labeling laws in place, products like Vermont Maid still use the Vermont aura to sell high fructose corn syrup.

Adding sugar to sugar doesn’t seem like the kind of thing people would get up in arms about, but there’s a long history of some sugars being more equal than others. Long before Hamilton, there was an 18th-century rap battle of sorts about cane sugar vs. maple sugar. James Grainger’s 1764 The Sugar-Cane offers a detailed guide to producing cane sugar in the form of a long poem, including stomach-churning passages where Grainger offers a buyer’s guide to human beings. On the other hand, as a recent article by Mark Sturges in Early American Studies details, anti-slavery rhetoric was tied up with the maple sugar industry in the late 18th and early 19th century. “’Bleed on, blest tree!’: Maple Sugar Georgics in the Early American Republic” details the hopes of various US gentleman farmers (including, ironically, Thomas Jefferson) that the US maple sugar industry would offer an alternative to the Caribbean slave sugar economy, and how these gentleman farmers explored their ideas about agricultural innovation by writing long poems about agricultural innovation (like you do).

Some of the poems focus on the potential of maple sugar to aid the cause of abolition:

“In sacc’rine streams, thou pour’st the tide of life,
Yet grow’st still stronger from th’ innocuous knife.
Thy blood, more sweet than Hyblean honey, honey flows
Balm for the heart-sick, cure of Slav’ry’s woes
Bleed on, blest tree! And as thy sweet blood runs,
Bestow fond hope on Afric’s sable Sons.”

Meanwhile, lesser-known Founding Father Benjamin Rush sounds a similar note when he says “Cases may occur in which sugar may be required… by persons, who refuse to be benefitted, even indirectly, by the labor of slaves. In such cases innocent maple sugar will always be preferred.”

The purity of the Vermont maple syrup brand has its roots in this “innocence” of its production, but it’s complicated. The purity associated with maple has always come as much from what it is not (cane sugar) as what it is (sugar with a better backstory and subtle maple flavor). Maple sugar is not cane sugar. Historically, instead of being a product produced by enslaved Black people under truly horrific conditions, maple sugar is produced by white people, under circumstances that are quite picturesque, or used to be, at least.

These connections between maple sugar and abolition also manifest themselves in some ironies about the relation of maple and color. Maple, or a brown sugar made by white people, was an alternative to cane sugar, a white sugar made by Black people. Even so, however, in 19th-century New England, cane sugar remained the aspirational product, and until very recently, maple syrup was graded by how light it was—in other words, how closely it approximated the taste of cane sugar. Over time, the bug became the feature, and consumers learned to seek out grade B syrup. In 2013, Vermont lawmakers passed a new standard that replaced grade B as a category with “dark and robust,” and provided labels more in keeping with current tastes.

Vermont’s maple industry has found a way to articulate the value of its darker and more robust agricultural products, but its population remains overwhelmingly white. In spite of the state’s antislavery bonafides—a greater proportion of Vermonters died in the Civil war than from any other state—Vermonters have had less to brag about since Appomattox. As Lauren Michelle Jackson’s 2017 essay details, artisanal and craft food culture often involves putting a white face on the labor and expertise of non-white bodies. Maple culture fits this paradigm in that white settlers learned the technology from Native Americans, and it is the Vermont Maid who is the slender white exception to her competitors, rebooted mammies like Mrs. Butterworth and Aunt Jemima, not to mention the molasses-colored boys who accompanied the main element of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety.

It’s an oversimplification to say that maple sugar is perceived as special sugar because white people make it, but claims of the purity of maple as a product sit a little bit uneasily next to the whiteness of the state that is famous for its maple syrup. With 96.2% white population, Vermont is the whitest state in the union. Whatever role Vermont maple syrup might have played in helping to end slavery, very few of the descendants of those slaves have ever found a home in Vermont. As one of W.E.B Du Bois’ remarkable infographics detail, all of 11 Georgia-born African-Americans lived in Vermont in 1890. Until quite recently, if all of the Black people in the state of Vermont wanted see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall (capacity 6,015), they all could have gone to the same show, with seats left over. Vermont was also home to one of the most notorious government eugenics projects, a program that, among others, targeted the same Native American population who had shared maple technology with white settlers. In this context, having the state’s signature product having a brand focused on a purity rooted in the whiteness of its producers is worth thinking about.

Maple syrup is worth thinking about because maple syrup is delicious. Especially with a luxury item like maple syrup, mindful consumption seems like a good idea. There are more Vermont maple specialty food products than the world needs, strictly speaking—maple sriracha, for instance seems like the product of a random food trend generator. But in the right place, there is nothing like maple syrup. Having real maple syrup on pancakes will ruin you for the stuff they have on the table at IHOP or Waffle House, and have you calling bullshit on this pigtailed charlatan. Fortunately, some clever folks have made it easy for you to travel with your own maple stash. You can have all of the desserts ever, and I'll keep vanilla ice cream, salted cashews, and warmed maple syrup. Here is the recipe: take some vanilla ice cream, put some salted cashews on it, and pour over some warmed maple syrup, preferably dark and robust.