Most of my friends spent their spring break flying south, migrating to white beaches or service trips in the outskirts of jungles. I spent my spring break being pulled north by the smokey, sweet lure of my family’s sugaring operation.
Late winter, early spring at my home in Western New York is a time of tradition. I know that tradition is an overused word, but it really is the only one that remotely describes what pushes my dad to spend his summers sweatily cutting down tress for sugaring fuel, and his winters freezing his fingers while untangling sculptures of knotted tubing. Tradition is what brings my family together around the evaporator for a night filled with Bob Dylan crooning from the scratchy radio and savory sugar-house specials: a steaming shot of almost-done syrup and dark Haitian rum.
In my dad’s younger days of three braids and hitchhiking, he picked up a long church pew in his travels. I doubt he knew where it would fit into his life then, but it has its place now. It stretches along the back wall of the sugar house, engraved into perfect seat cradles by the many neighbors, family members, dogs, and strangers who have found the warmth of conversation and syrup upon it.
Syrup is the embodiment of the power to connect. It quite literally connects itself. Syrup has boiled to completion when its stickiness is strong enough to hold it in a connected curtain across the edge of a special metal scoop. It connects recipes. Add a dash of syrup and I swear that everything in your recipe will come together perfectly. It connects generations. Your grandma might not recognize high fructose corn syrup, but I bet she understands the sweetness of maple syrup! Syrup brings together people, and ideologies, and animals. Sugar houses provide a space to take the time. To sit down next to someone with no agenda in mind and connect. Maybe to talk, but maybe to just sit in steam and sip.
Favorite and Simple MacKenzie Family Maple Syrup Recipes:
*The Favorite, Tried and True Spoon (or as my dad calls it: his medicine): All you need is maple syrup and a table spoon (or even a tea spoon.) Fill the spoon with syrup and drink. Feel free to refill as many times as you desire.
*Maple Grapefruit: If you like a bit of sweetness with your grapefruit, ditch the sugar and pour on the syrup. I guarantee you’ll never go back!
*Sap Coffee: Make coffee like you normally do but replace the water with sap. It adds subtle, but wonderful flavor and you won’t even need to add any extra sugar!
*The Sugar House Special: A shot with half warm syrup and half dark rum. Sip so you don’t burn yourself!
-Onagh MacKenzie ‘15
Pizza and Events intern Onagh MacKenzie ‘15, who grew up on a sprawling rural livestock farm, on how she learned to appreciate the bite-sized Yale version:
Farming, to me, has always meant land. Lots of it. It has meant being able to turn 360 degrees and not see a man-made structure. Or hear anything other than the cows and their cud.
When my parents moved to Naples, New York over thirty years ago, they bought half an old dairy farm, the worn-in house, and its fifty acres. My brother has since used the entire farm, our fields and woods, along with the other original half, to establish his own sustainable meat farm. No more of my dad’s disorganized, motley crew of Scottish Highland cows. We have a “real” farm operation now, with ear tags and rotating pastures and three strands of fencing instead of one. (Sometimes I find myself missing the weekly call from the neighbors telling us our cows were in the road, or, sometimes, their garden.)
The main constraint on my brother’s operation hasn’t been lack of manpower or customers, but land. The 100 acres have long ceased to be enough. The cows and sheep now spill over onto neighboring land which we lease from its owners. To compensate for the distance in grass, we need to have sheep road moves between pastures. “Sheep in the Road” signs go up on either end of the journey, and in the middle it’s a sea of wooly bodies, swarming around the cars and invading the ditches. We’re reminded just how much we could use those extra acres of our own.
The idea that a farm could exist without acres of fields and with sidewalks, passing traffic, and a city skyline in the distance was a foreign concept to me. Urban farming seemed too much of an incongruity. Then I found my way to the Yale Farm. Instead of road sheep moves, we have perfectly aligned greenhouses and beds of veggies measured to take advantage of every last patch of earth. At 345 Edwards Street, lack of land is an inspiration: rather than focusing on what we don’t have, the small space encourages innovation.
But it’s more than just a space to be utilized: the Farm is a space to enjoy, a space to appreciate farming for more than just its fields and its time in nature. At the Yale Farm I have learned to love sustainable agriculture for its desire to spread good food and to appreciate where it comes from. The Farm is a space for the people, and the parts of friends that only come out when picking carrots. Space for the pause in my life that Friday afternoons provide, a time to breathe after the sprint of the week. And you know what? When I’m bent over in the garden bed, proudly checking out the dirt under my fingernails, or with my head stuck in the pizza oven, monitoring the cooking dough, I don’t even notice the skyline.