In 1557, French cartographer André Thévet published Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique, an account containing a number of tales of the New World, gathered from men who’d been there. One of those men was Jacques Cartier, today credited with establishing a foothold for France in North America, laying claim to the country he named Canada, and for possibly being the first European to discover the ooey, gooey, deliciousness of maple syrup.
Well, it might not have been in an ooey, gooey form, but evidently Cartier relayed the tale to Thévet of a tree resembling a large European walnut that when felled, released a sugary liquid “as tasty and as delicate as any good wine from Orleans or Beaune.” Cartier’s party quickly filled several pots with the sweet sap and had they boiled it in those pots, they would have wanted some pancakes to go with it.
Native Americans in the area had been tapping maple trees during the Sugar Moon (the first full moon of spring) for enough years for several legends to have arisen around the practice, and North American squirrels had been doing it for even longer.
Europeans may have been late to the party, but they proved just as enthusiastic.Widely used as concentrated sugar during the 17th and 18th centuries, at around the time of the American Civil War, maple sap was largely replaced as a sweetener in American cooking by imported cane sugar. And so ooey, gooey, delicious syrup became the maple product of choice for most people (and probably squirrels).
It makes a good glaze for salmon or adds a lovely sweetness to barbecue sauce. It’s great in salad dressings, with bacon, or drizzled over nuts. And according to Yale-trained chemical engineer Edward Cussler—awarded a 2005 prestigious (sort of) Ig Nobel prize for his super science-y study—you can even swim in it. But the best thing to do with it is to pour it over a big stack of soft, fluffy, warm, and buttery pancakes.
That’s just what my family will be doing next Tuesday. While some people may be donning masks, throwing beads, or eating cakes with a plastic baby trinket baked inside, we’ll be marking Shrove Tuesday with the traditional pancakes, smothered in ooey, gooey, syrupy deliciousness.
Chances are, that deliciousness will come from trees in Canada, which produces about 75% of the world’s supply of maple syrup. And fortunately, they’re not going to run out anytime soon, thanks to the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, which is a real thing. Despite a notable robbery in 2012 in which 1000 tons of syrup vanished (I have to assume wily squirrels were somehow involved) and was only partially recovered, the reserve holds more than 12,000 tons of syrup in three separate warehouses throughout Quebec.
That’s probably just a little more than Cartier’s men gathered all those years ago. Now, the reserve is also a little controversial, because it’s essentially a cartel designed to control the Canadian syrup market and maintain higher prices. But it also means that if there’s a bad year for maples, my family can still observe Shrove Tuesday in style, with a big stack of soft, fluffy, warm, and buttery pancakes, smothered in ooey, gooey, syrupy deliciousness.