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Sweet Talk

The language of maple syrup production is remarkably similar to that of drug dealing. Buyers try to make contact with dealers – who manufacture the syrup in deep, rural Ontario and Quebec – in search of the purest, most refined version of the product. I imagine the white middle-classes descending on isolated outposts of the countryside, in search of the good shit.

I spent most of May in Canada: mainly in Montreal, but also in Kingston for a wedding, and fleetingly in Toronto. I had a most fantastic and excellent time. (Except for the bit where I threw up every two hours on the trip from Toronto to Montreal. I could not recommend Via Rail’s bathrooms more highly.) Until this visit, my main exposure to Canadian cuisine had been in the form of Kraft dinner and poutine. A few years ago, a friend and I were locked in a basement kitchen and made to cook poutine for fifty homesick Canadians. If needs be, I may claim Canadian citizenship on the grounds of this experience. So with expectations suitably adjusted, I was curious about the food I would encounter.

In Toronto's Kensington Market.

In Toronto’s Kensington Market.

I ate exceptionally well and at such a range of cafes and restaurants, which is not surprising considering how multicultural some parts of Canada are. I was interested in the number of distinctly Canadian dishes I encountered: turtles, Nanaimo bars, and butter tarts. I would have tried a sugar pie in Quebec were I not concerned about early-onset diabetes.

A turtle at Olive & Gourmando.

A turtle at Olive & Gourmando in Montreal.

And while staying with my friend Jane’s parents in Kingston, I learned a great deal about maple syrup. (Not least via the medium of her mum Elva’s amazingly delicious maple syrup muffins.) I discovered:

-       It’s possible to freeze maple syrup.

-       Maple syrup is best stored in empty, but unrinsed, rum, whisky, or brandy bottles.

-       The syrup ages as it keeps.

-       Each vintage is unique.

-       A collection of maple trees tapped for resin is called a sugar bush.

Subsequently, my friend Theo mentioned the Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. This really does exist and is not, as I first suspected, the basis of Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy (neutralising enemies with extreme sweetness). Theo explains:

Cartel logic. The reserve is there to maintain the ‘right’ balance of sales and prices year to year, maintaining predictability for the many, many small producers of maple syrup. They sell off the reserve if there are new markets or a bad frost reducing the supply, and they build up the reserve in years with good production. OPEC does the same thing with petrol.

Maple syrup is so important to the Canadian economy – Quebec alone produces three quarters of the world’s supply – that the reserve is essential for protecting both the nation’s income and individual suppliers’ livelihoods. This is why the 2012 heist, during which thieves made off with around $30 million worth of maple syrup, was such a calamity.

In Mile End, Montreal.

In Mile End, Montreal.

But maple syrup means more than money. One of my favourite accounts of a first visit to the motherland is an essay by Margaret Atwood. In ‘Tour-de-Farce’ she describes how this 1964 trip to Britain and ‘a dauntingly ambitious quest for cultural trophies,’ which was supposed to ‘improve’ both her and her writing, helped her to understand her own Canadian-ness. Or, rather, that the people she encountered abroad could not position her within a cultural context:

For the Europeans, there was a flag-shaped blank where my nationality should have been. What was visible to me was invisible to them; nor could I help them out by falling back on any internationally-famous architectural constructs. About all I had to offer as a referent was a troop of horsey policemen, which hardly seemed enough.

Canadian food historians have begun to do excellent work on how Canadian identities have been constructed around food, cooking, and eating – around Tim Horton’s, immigrant cuisines, vegetarianism – and have thought about the position of maple syrup within this national identity- and mythmaking. (In what other country is it possible to consume a national emblem at breakfast?)

Its origins are in the wilderness, it was produced first by First Nations people and then by settlers, particularly dairy farmers in need of income during long, freezing winters. It was the virtuous substitute for sugar among nineteenth-century abolitionists, and figured prominently in the country’s commitment to an imperial war effort during the Second World War. Maple syrup’s usefulness is that because it’s a product that is linked to Canada’s landscape – it is ‘natural’ and, thus, somehow pure – it is able to by-pass a range of concerns that upset ideas of a Canadian-ness constructed around goodness and sweetness. Like wild salmon, maple syrup can be sold as a kind of pure, depoliticised embodiment of all that is ‘Canadian.’

Further Reading

Atsuko Hashimoto and David J. Telfer, ‘Selling Canadian Culinary Tourism: Branding the Global and the Regional Product,’ Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment, vol. 8, no. 1 (2006), pp. 31-55.

Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, and Marlene Epp (eds.), Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

Carol I. Mason, ‘A Sweet Small Something: Maple Sugaring in the New World,’ in The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies, ed. James A. Clifton (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007), pp. 91-106.

Ian Mosby, Food will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front (Vermont: University of British Columbia Press, 2014).

Steve Penfold, The Donut: A Canadian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very interesting article as I am very interested in the linking of food and identity. Had to laugh, though – the banner on the market summed up my weekend: I am still recovering from the Chilean lunch and the arepas I just had, almost dreading the Mexican lunch tomorrow …

    June 7, 2014
    • So glad you like it! And what excellent-sounding lunches. -Sarah

      June 8, 2014
  2. I spent a year in France in 1979 with a host family out of a Balzac novel. My school recommended that we offer our hosts a gift typical of where we came from, so I suggested to my parents that they send a can of maple syrup. When it finally arrived, my host family sneered at it and put it in the cupboard, where it stayed, unopened, for months. They didn’t want to open it, apparently, but then again, they didn’t want me to open it, either. They also didn’t feed me enough. Then I found out that my classmate across the street was being underfed as well. So we hatched a plan: I stole bread and butter and the can of maple syrup, and we met in an alley at night and gorged ourselves. It was bad, and it was rebellion, and it was delicious. We did this every night until we finished the can, which I put back empty on the shelf. Maple syrup isn’t just important to Canadian identity or to Vermont identity—maple syrup made me who I am. It was my Popeye spinach. I didn’t take any more shit from anyone in France after that.

    June 9, 2014
    • Oh what a fantastic story – thank you! -Sarah

      June 9, 2014

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