As it turns out, immigration isn’t all about reflective self-analysis and fish-out-of-water stuff, contrary to the SERIOUS BUSINESS mood that often permeates this critically acclaimed* blog. It’s also about getting out and doing fun things that one might not have had the opportunity to do at home, or never thought about doing.
Since I’m getting more comfortable behind the wheel, and the roads are getting better (well…less icy anyway, not necessarily better), AND I’ve realized I’ve been here over three months and haven’t ventured out all that much, I’ve started to push myself to think outside the box and outside Augusta a bit more during my free time. Maine’s got a lot of things to do and see, but if I wait until summer then I’m going to be dealing with tourist traffic.
So this is going to be my new segment, if you will – Out and About. It probably won’t be weekly, but every time I do something interesting outside of Augusta, I’ll do a write-up for all three of my eager readers. So without further ado…
Maine Maple Sunday (March 23)
Go to your pantry or kitchen cupboard real quick and have a look at the maple syrup label. Unless you’re some sort of fancy foodie, or a millionaire (in both cases, why would you be wasting your time reading this blog?), then chances are the sticker says “maple flavored syrup” or “imitation maple syrup”. Before I moved here, I knew that the stuff in the supermarket didn’t really come out of a maple tree, but I was under the impression that real maple syrup was the product of Vermont and Canada, and that was it.
But as it happens, Maine is a huge producer of the sticky sweet stuff too. There are tons of sugarhouses in the Pine Tree State, at least 88 of them on this map anyway. So back in early March when I watched a video of Maine’s Governor Paul LePage ceremonially tapping a maple tree in his own backyard, I thought “I sure am hungry.”
Maine Maple Sunday is the day when all the sugarhouses throw their doors open for people to come and sample (and buy, duh) their wares. Unfortunately this year there was some concern because the weather has been so cold that the sap is still frozen in the trees. Uh oh. A tough winter means frozen sap can’t be drained out of the maple trees, which means the producers get behind in processing it into syrup. So evidently there were a bunch of farms whose Maine Maple Sundays didn’t have any fresh 2014 syrup, or at least enough to sell.
ANYWAY. Boy I can ramble. So last week I did some crowd-sourcing among coworkers and on Twitter to see if anyone had strong opinions on which sugarhouse was best to visit for Maple Sunday. I got a handful of opinions and narrowed it down to Bacon Farm (because, duh, “bacon”), probably half an hour north of me. I dropped one of my new-found friends here a text to ask if she wanted to tag along, her being a bit of a foodie, and she replied that one of her coworkers’ family actually runs a maple farm and that I should tag along with them. The more the merrier, I figured.
So Sunday came around and I punched the address of Simmons and Daughters Sugar House in Merrill, about 50 minutes’ drive east of Augusta towards the coast, into Google Maps on my phone and set off. Luckily it wasn’t too difficult of a journey, because about 20 minutes into the trip I looked down and found I had zero cell phone service. Shit. Thankfully, somehow, the GPS kept following me (caching I guess?) so I continued to get directions all the way out there.
The same way it was when I drove to Bangor a couple of times in the last month, it’s kinda cool to get out there and see road signs for all the small communities the paper covers. I passed through South China, Palermo and Liberty, to name a few, before turning off the highway and hitting country roads as the farm drew closer. And it wasn’t hard to find, even without GPS – there were a ton of people around.
The farm’s main building was the sugar shack, where the sap is fed down into a big old wood-fired apparatus which mixes the sap with boiling water to concentrate the sugar into syrup. It was pretty sciencey and I’m not too bright, so I can’t explain it much better than that, but it sure was steamy in there! Good for the pores. And they were handing out free (!) foam cups of vanilla ice cream drizzled with hot maple syrup, which is just phenomenal and shut up and go try it right now, I’ll wait here.
The next building over housed the finished product, in all shapes and sizes. There was syrup in containers from small gift-sized plastic jugs to glass quart mason jars and the big dog gallon jugs, which were sold out by the time I got there around noon. You could also get freshly spun maple cotton candy (pass), maple whoopie pies, hard candy, scones and other baked goodies. But it was Sunday, and I needed some meat, so I went straight to the hot dog stand.
By this point it was around 12:30pm, which was the time I’d arranged to meet my friend Bonnie, but I’d already been there for 20 minutes and I was hungry, so I did the polite thing and didn’t wait for anyone else. The grill man, who’s also one of Bonnie’s friends, explained to me that he was boiling the hot dogs in a mix of maple syrup and water, then grilling them. And let me tell you, they were incredible. I had no idea a hot dog could taste like maple syrup and be good. They were $2 each or two for $3, and stupidly I only paid for one because I figured one would be enough. WRONG. I ended up spending $8 on four because every time I swore it would be my last. Why must I lie to myself?
Bonnie and the rest of her troupe did end up coming along halfway through my hot dog gorging process, and we all wandered around and checked out the rest of the action. The Maine Warden Service had an exhibit there called the “wall of shame” which had a stack of taxidermied deer heads and other products of illegal hunting kills. I’m not gonna lie – it’s a little surreal that game hunting is such a casual everyday part of life in this part of the world. I heard one of the farm owners’ daughters, who couldn’t have been older than 17, nonchalantly talking about how she bagged a 900lb moose. Holy shit. I haven’t even held a real gun before. I’d have gone to pieces.
And wandering around the event was a film crew from a reality TV show set up here called North Woods Law, which follows the game wardens around making busts and whatnot. All in all I probably spent an hour and a half out at the farm, and about $20 on syrup and syrup-related products. I got a quart of syrup in a mason jar, which I’m guessing might not last until next spring, a maple whoopie pie (so dense, so good) and four hot dogs because I’m a disgusting human being.
I’d driven my Subaru Outback to a Maple Sunday event, in my LL Bean boots covered in mud and watched North Woods Law being filmed while eating a maple hot dog – it doesn’t get much more “Maine” than that, folks.