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Sweet as Syrup
Opening a Can of Canada's Best
This is a can of maple syrup. There’s politics in that can.
Maple syrup is made in the spring but it belongs to the colder months. When I was growing up, we occasionally went to sugaring demonstrations. This was somewhat unusual. Indiana does not produce a lot of maple syrup now—perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 gallons a year, or somewhere around half of what Massachusetts produces (or maybe a quarter, depending on what statistics you look like). This represents something of a decline from the historical norm. In 1840, Indiana produced 5.6 million gallons of syrup. Over the subsequent decades, much of the state’s maple acreage would be cleared, and the Great Depression cleared out the remainder of small maple-syrup farms in Indiana. These days, of course, almost all American production comes from Vermont, with New York state and Maine making up the bulk of the rest.
They didn’t explain any of that at the demonstrations. Or maybe they did and eight year olds just don’t listen. I know I didn’t understand at that time that sugaring was a Native foodway, like popcorn, and I certainly didn’t understand at all that the sugar maple was a uniquely North American phenomenon.
It’s very American (derogatory) that something this distinctive was left to be managed strictly on an economic basis. Why value the sugar maple? Why not turn it into desks and cabins? And why prize maple syrup for any frou-frou reasons like terroir when we could, instead, sweeten our pancakes with racist corn syrup?1 It’s all just sucrose, innit? And so it was that the sugaring tradition was reduced to demonstrations for schoolchildren.
In Vermont, history took a different path, with producers developing a brand and regulations to support it. (You may have heard of Vermont in connection with syrup.) In Massachusetts, sugaring became something of an agri-tourism exercise—in places like my preferred syrup vendor, the North Hadley Sugar Shack, in the spring you can watch syrup be made before you buy it in the gift shop. It’s an intensive business: it takes a lot of sap to make any syrup. As agri-tourism, I suspect the North Hadley Sugar Shack makes more from its parade of seasonal events than from the syrup. (Say, you can buy syrup from them online.)
In Quebec, things went very differently. There, syrup is a touchstone of culture and the object of rather substantial legislation. Quebec produces the vast bulk of the world’s maple syrup—about 15 to 16 million gallons per year, something like 70 percent of all that’s made. And Quebec being Quebec, where farmers have strong interests and the government works to protect the province, they are organized into a don’t-call-it-a-cartel to keep prices high, or at least steady despite annual variations in production.
The can pictured above is an icon of the arrangement (even if the can’s design itself pre-dates the not-a-cartel). Nobody else sells maple syrup like that, and so the ubiquitous can is the subject of media coverage and surprisingly intensive research. Attachment to the can is more than an economic arrangement (although it’s also a symbol of an economic arrangement!). People care a lot about this can. Rustic, hearty, and practical, the can manifests a Québécois identity in a concrete way—the opposite of how, as Kathleen McNamara writes in The Politics of Everyday Europe, Europe’s unreal architecture on its banknotes tries to avoid strong attachments.
I was thinking about this when I opened the can today. I like Quebec—well, I really like Montreal, but Montreal is a part of Quebec. I’ve been to a real cabane à sucre (that is, sugar shack), and I’ve been to the Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack. At the less expensive one, the waitstaff spoke to us in French for several courses until it finally dawned on both us and the waitstaff that we couldn’t really speak French. It was a reminder that Quebec is really a foreign country, not just America, Jr., with an accent.
It’s amazing what thinking about a society in ways that go beyond economics can do. Quebec does that a lot, in ways I mostly approve of and some that I don’t particularly like. This isn’t a post about that, though. It’s a post, more or less, about how even a can of syrup has politics.
And it’s also a wistful post, because, like everything, climate change threatens maple syrup production in much of its native range. It’s the normal story: maples produce sugar under narrow conditions that climate change will disrupt, and the rise of extreme weather events may kill the trees themselves. Even those trees that still produce will make less intense sap, meaning it will take more taps to make a gallon of syrup. Vermont will need 53 to 88 percent more taps to maintain its production by 2100 and production will probably just cease in places like Kentucky and southern Indiana. There might be new ranges opened in Ontario and Quebec, on the other hand, making maple even more of a bastion of Quebec and Canadian identity.
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Okay, this is an effective but cheap line. Let me state, though, that by my childhood, the Aunt Jemima character had been so modernized that, to the extent I thought about the character at all, I just assumed that she was the CEO. What was more important then was that it tasted more familiar than maple syrup—and kids think the familiar superior. To anyone with a palate, of course, the syrup is better than the corn.