It’s maple sugaring season across the northern tier of North America. Ever since I was a little girl and read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story of a Wisconsin sugaring-off party in The Little House in the Big Woods, I’ve always wanted to see real maple syrup being made. Laura’s description made it seem like so much fun, and there was a big party afterward. I could picture Ma and Pa and Laura pouring the syrup onto fresh snow to make maple candy. Yum! My favorite local candy store still sells homemade pure maple candy shaped like maple leaves and acorns, and I always think of Laura when I see it.
Tapping maple trees doesn’t do them any significant harm, and harvesting the sap is a great way for farmers to earn extra income without chopping down their woodlots. The sugaring-off process is not complicated, but it does take a lot of patience, as 40 to 50 gallons of sap needs to be boiled (and boiled, and boiled) until it’s cooked down to a single gallon of pure syrup. This does make it an energy-intensive enterprise. I’m sure someone will soon invent a solar-powered sugar boiler, if they haven’t already.
I love to collect old photos of people engaged in unusual occupations, and I have two examples of “sugar shacks” in full steam. The first is a postcard from about 1910, location unidentified (drat!):
The second one is a rotogravure postcard postmarked in Clifford, Susquehanna County, in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains region:
I would love to know where Greene’s Valley Farm was, and if it still exists. A former employee of the farm mailed the card in 1917 with this description: “Sun. Am here to-day. This is a place where I used to work where they make maple syrup. Was here for supper to-night. At church & Sun. school to-day. B.G.W.”
Postcards: the next-best thing to time travel!
It’s officially spring, which means something special for me: I’m another quarter-year older. I was born on the winter solstice, so I measure my age by counting solstices and equinoxes. I find it strangely comforting to use these ancient milestones to mark the passage of time, since it connects me to each generation back to the savanna-wanderers and cave-dwellers, who surely wondered at the transit of constellations across the hemisphere of the sky. Who among them was the first to name and anthropomorphize the stars? Who noticed the connection between the stars and the blooming of certain flowers and the fertility cycles of certain animals? We’ll never know, but we nevertheless profit from their wisdom.
Are we any less thrilled when we glimpse the first winter aconite through a blanket of snow than our ancestors were a millennium ago? I doubt it. Artist Muriel Dawson (1897-1974) captured the same feeling in her painting about 90 years ago:
And artist Sybil Barham illustrated the excitement of the first flush of spring with the help of words from poet Percy Bysshe Shelley about a century ago:
In a world that sometimes seems to travel faster than the speed of light, I sometimes need to pause and remind myself that nature measures time in geologic ages, not in nanoseconds. And each of us has her time and season.
Like many holidays, St. Patrick’s Day is associated with both historical truths and fanciful mythology. These St. Patrick’s Day postcards from my collection, which are all about a century old, illustrate some of those facts and myths.
First, there was indeed a Catholic priest named Patrick. But he wasn’t Irish; he was English. Born into an aristocratic family about 390 A.D., he was abducted as a teenager and taken to Ireland, where he lived as a slave for seven years before escaping and returning home. It was there that he received a divine call to return to Ireland and convert the Irish to Christianity. Traditional stories claimed that Patrick “drove the snakes out of Ireland,” but climatic conditions mean that there were never any snakes of the reptilian variety in Ireland to drive out. This legend is now considered a metaphor for Patrick’s evangelizing and driving the Old Religion from the island. If you look closely at the postcard on the left below, you’ll see a snake under Patrick’s boot.
Another legend surrounds the association between St. Patrick and the shamrock. Some claim that the priest used the plants’ thee-part leaves to represent the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit when he was attempting to explain Christianity; modern researchers think this story was perpetuated by monks long after Patrick’s death. Nevertheless, the shamrock is still strongly associated with Ireland (the plant is its national flower) and with St. Patrick’s Day in particular.
The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day as something more than an ordinary saint’s day, with perhaps a special dinner, originated not in Ireland but in America, among Irish-Americans. Postcards depicting “hands across the sea” and displaying emblems from both cultures were common. The card below features flags representing the United States and Ireland—but the “Irish” flag shown is that of the Irish Catholic republican nationalists and not the official tricolor Irish national flag in use today. The shamrock appears as the emblem of the Irish, while goldenrod represents the United States. (The goldenrod was once in contention for our country’s official flower, but that honor was given to the rose in 1986.)
Another symbol of good luck that appears on old St. Patrick’s Day postcards is the pig. This tradition comes from Teutonic cultures and is maintained in modern Germany and Austria, as well as England and Ireland, but Americans in general have not embraced it.
But we do still enjoy these old St. Patrick’s Day postcards, which are a celebration of Irish-American culture, if not the saint for whom the day is named.
Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent. In New Orleans, they will celebrate Mardi Gras (“fat Tuesday”), but here in the Lehigh Valley and anywhere else in America where there is a critical mass of Pennsylvania Germans, we’ll celebrate Fasnacht Daag (“the night before the fast”). Both terms hint at the origin of this day: An attempt to use up the sugar and animal fats in a household before the 40 days of Lenten fasting.
We Pennsylvania “Dutch” use our fats by eating a doughnutlike cake called a Fasnacht. A tastier way to celebrate has never been devised. The Fasnacht is cakier and less sweet than a doughnut. My ancestors probably would have drizzled them with simple syrup or sorghum; bakers who make Fasnachts these days offer versions covered with powdered or granulated sugar, or glazed. Since these treats were once made in staggeringly massive quantities—large farm families were the rule—doughnut cutters were usually dispensed with and the dough cut into rectangles with a slit in the center. (My local bakery made 38,000 Fasnachts in 2007. Cutting out that many little circles would give them carpal tunnel syndrome.) To me, if it’s round, it’s not a Fasnacht. But some people like to eat the “holes,” so who am I to judge? Here are the doughnut cutters that were passed down from my mother and great-aunt:
The Fasnacht recipe below is the least voluminous one I could find. Some recipes called for 5 quarts of flour! This one is from an old cookbook my mother used. The author, Edna Eby Heller, grew up in Lititz, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, and learned the art of that cuisine from her mother as they fed 18 boarders in their rooming house. Old-time cooks seldom used specific measurements, since they “knew” how much of each ingredient to add so that the dish “got right,” having learned at their mothers’ elbows. Thankfully, Edna translated their recipes into modern recipe style and published them in five cookbooks. She died in 2009 at the age of 94.
Since these delicacies are made only once a year, children eagerly anticipate them. In the old days, the last child out of bed on Fasnacht Day would be called a “lazy Fasnacht,” and would get only one Fasnacht to eat. Also, the leftover fat used for frying the dough was used to grease garden and farming implements, as it was believed that this would ensure a bountiful harvest.
Some recipes call for the dough to rise overnight, but this variation has a shorter start-to-finish time.
1 medium potato, pared and sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1 package dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
6 cups sifted flour
Shortening for deep-fat frying
1. Cook the pared and sliced potato in salted water until tender. Drain, reserving 1 1/2 cups of the potato water. Melt the butter in this hot water. Mash the potato and measure 1/4 cup. In a large bowl, beat the potato with the sugar until blended (using an electric mixer you’d like). Add the eggs and salt and mix well. Gradually add the potato water. Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water and add. Beat in half of the flour and then mix in the last 3 cups by hand. The dough will be soft.
2. Knead on a well-floured surface until smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a greased bowl, then turn the dough upside down so the top surface is greased. Cover and let rise in a warm place, free from draft, until doubled in bulk, 2 to 3 hours.
3. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead 1 minute. Divide the dough in half. Roll each half into a rectangle 1/3 inch thick. With a pastry wheel or knife, cut into 2-by-3-inch rectangles, making slits an inch long in the center of each. Place on a tablecloth, away from any draft, and cover with a cloth to rise again until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
4. Fry a few at a time in deep fat at 375°F. Drain on paper towels. Roll in granulated sugar, if desired.
Start to finish time: 5 hours
Makes 3 dozen
Adapted from The Art of Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking, by Edna Eby Heller (Galahad Books, 1968).