Short Order Cook

One of the joys of being retired is waking up each morning at your leisure rather than responding to the dictates of an alarm clock. Another is having the time to engage in activities denied you when work took priority in setting your agenda and family dictated how you used your otherwise “free” time. The irony of all this is that, now that I supposedly have all the time in the world, I have selected to fill some of my new found chronological wealth with a volunteer opportunity that requires me to set the alarm for a time of morning even earlier than when I had a day job.

I am learning to be a cook of a short order nature, which has nothing to do with the quick pace of the preparation, such as you would find in a small town café. Rather it refers to the short list of menu items I am responsible to produce. In point of fact there is only one. I am learning to cook sap collected drip by precious drip from maple trees with the goal of making pure maple syrup.

This past Wednesday morning the alarm went off at 4:30am. This allowed me just enough time to put on my work clothes and make the pre-dawn drive to my first lesson in sap boiling. The term used by my mentor is that I was a shadow cook. Despite my ephemeral status I still felt the frigid conditions of our open-air shanty. Extreme cold has no mercy for shadows, despite our lack of depth.

Here is another point of fact: the temperature was too cold for the sap to run. It had more sense than I did and stayed within the warm confines of the tree. But we had a school group coming to learn about making syrup from nature’s own raw material and so we had to fake it in order to provide a truly educational experience. Essentially we cooked water to make the steam, which has the same appearance as the vapor arising from boiling sap. It simply lacked the sweet, sticky residue, which is a natural by-product of reducing the sap down to the necessary sugar level. The kids didn’t seem to mind. They were out of the classroom for the day. And I am sure that their parents didn’t mind since their children came home steamed cleaned.

The process we demonstrated was low tech, dating back to the Civil War era. There is a rectangular firebox on top of which sits a ten-gallon rectangular tank. The fire we build using oak and maple wood burns at more than 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and over the course of a nine hour period – on a day when there is an ample supply of sap – you can reduce 100 gallons of sap down to about 3 gallons of amber liquid with about a 62% sugar content. During that time the cooks monitor the steady flow of raw sap into the tank in proportion to the amount of water vapor lost into the atmosphere; impurities are skimmed off; and like any cooking process on the stove at home, the liquid is constantly stirred to prevent it from being scorched on the bottom of the pan.

Those final three gallons of near perfect maple bliss are then transferred to the finishing house, where the liquid is refined even further until the sugar content is slightly above 66%. This is the requisite percentage that is acknowledged to constitute pure maple syrup. It is bottled, labeled and set aside for distribution to the volunteers, whose combined labor produced such liquid gold. I am anxiously awaiting the opportunity to bathe my homemade waffles in this sumptuous concoction at my leisure, in a warm kitchen, well after sunrise, when my shadow status will be well transformed by a substantial appetite.

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