Tree-Tapping Squirrels and Ooey, Gooey Deliciousness

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.

cartier
Jacques Cartier, dreaming of drinking maple syrup. By Theophile Hamel – Library and Archives Canada, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

sap-collection
The squirrels may have been at it longer, but we do it better. photo credit: looseends sap season via photopin (license)

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 Cusslerawarded a 2005 prestigious (sort of) Ig Nobel prize for his super science-y studyyou 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.

squirrel
Clearly up to no good. photo credit: kennethkonica “Didn’t you see the STAY AWAY sign?” via photopin (license)

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.

“If you didn’t win a prize — and especially if you did — better luck next year!”

On the morning of April 13, 1888, successful inventor of explosives, Alfred Nobel picked up his copy of the morning paper and found something few ever have the opportunity to read: his own obituary notice.  “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” the headline read and the article went on to explain, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding more ways to kill people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, and did NOT die on April 12, 1888. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, and did NOT die on April 12, 1888. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Nobel had died the previous day, but it was Alfred’s older brother Ludvig, a successful businessman and inventor in his own right. Though Alfred was still very much alive (and would be for another eight and a half years) the mistake was devastating to the inventor whose drive had largely been to develop safer ways to produce and use explosives.

Determined that he would not be remembered as “The Merchant of Death,” Nobel changed his will to leave 94% of his wealth (which was a lot) to the establishment of an award designed to honor great achievements in various scientific and cultural categories.

So since 1901, the Nobel prizes have been awarded on December 10th, with announcements happening sometime in early October. But since 1991, there has been an even more impressive presentation of awards given just prior to the Nobel announcements, called the Ig Nobel Prize Awards.

Thanks to Isabella Mandl, et. al., recipients of the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize for Physiology, we now know that red-footed tortoises do not experience contagious yawning. And I know we were all wondering. By Ltshears (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to Mandl, et. al., recipients of the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize for Physiology, we now know that red-footed tortoises do not experience contagious yawning. And I know we were all wondering. By Ltshears (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
While the type of scientific research that now claims the attention of the Nobel committee may be somewhat difficult for us regular shlubs to fully understand, the Ig Nobels (or Igs for short) are designed to recognize research that “first makes people laugh and then makes them think.”

Last year’s winners include a group of Japanese scientists who formally studied just how slippery a banana peel discarded on the floor actually is, a pair from the US and India that teamed up to study whether nosebleeds might be effectively treated by packing one’s nose with strips of cured pork, and nutrition researchers from Spain who studied the viability of using bacteria isolated from baby poop as probiotic starter cultures for use in the production of fermented sausages.

2005 Ig Nobel laureates Edward Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger determined that humans can swim just as fast in syrup as they can in water.
2005 Ig Nobel laureates Edward Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger determined that humans can swim just as fast in syrup as they can in water.

That’s just a FEW of the scientific advances celebrated in just ONE year of the Igs. The tradition of the Ig Nobels was begun by editors of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and it has been pretty widely embraced by the scientific community, with the awards presentation being hosted by Nobel laureates and with most recipients (who do have the option of declining the nomination) graciously accepting their awards, often in-person.

Because the thing about scientific research is that sometimes it’s the bizarre or trivial questions that lead to discoveries that really do change the world. The 2006 winner of the biology Ig was a multinational group of researchers who determined that the female mosquito responsible for transmitting malaria is every bit as attracted to Limburger cheese as it is to the smell of human feet. A worthy study it was, because the findings have led to new developments in the control of mosquito populations in the ongoing battle against malaria in Africa.

Enquist, et. al. received the award in the category of Interdisciplinary Research in 2003 for their determination to prove what I think we've probably known all along, that chickens really do prefer beautiful people. photo credit: via photopin (license)
Enquist, et. al. received the award in the category of Interdisciplinary Research in 2003 for their determination to prove what the scientific community has long suspected, that chickens really do prefer beautiful people. photo credit: via photopin (license)

And in 2011, a researcher from Stanford University won the Ig in Literature for his “Theory of Structured Procrastination,” in which he suggests that highly accomplished people work best when they “work on something important as a way to avoid working on something that’s even more important,” which is why I am taking the time to blog about the Ig Nobel Prize when I should be writing a novel.

I’m also writing this because in the next few weeks we will learn who the world-changers are that the Nobel Committee has decided deserve to have the title of “Nobel laureate” in the headlines of their obituaries, but before that can happen, on this very night at Harvard’s Sander’s Theater, the 25th annual Ig Nobel awards ceremony will take center stage.

If you forgot to get your tickets, don’t worry. You’ll be able to catch a radio broadcast of this important event on NPR’s Science Friday the day after Thanksgiving.  It’s sure to be a doozy of a ceremony and it will end with the traditional words:  “If you didn’t win a prize — and especially if you did — better luck next year!”

If you’re interested (and you know you are), here’s a link to the full list of Ig Nobel Prize winning studies.