Archive for March 25th, 2011

Is Maple Syrup Always Kosher?

Have you noticed  that being Jewish is complicated?

Maine Maple Syrup Sunday takes place annually, the fourth Sunday in March.  All the maple sugar houses throughout Maine are open to the public.  Informal tours are conducted of “sugar bushes” – the maple trees – with attached taps and buckets, which collect the sap that starts to run once the days get warm and the nights remain frozen.  The sticky liquid sap is brought to sugar houses – also known as “sugar shacks” – – and boiled down for hours and hours until it’s just the right consistency for maple syrup.  An average tree produces 40 quarts of sap, and it takes 40 quarts of sap to make just one quart of syrup!

I thought it would be fun to learn about the process first-hand, sample some syrup, and perhaps buy a jugful for my pancakes.

But first I called my home town’s kosher hotline and asked, “Does maple syrup need a hechsher (kosher certification)?”

“It’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s better if it does,” was the answer I received from the hotline helper.

I was not satisfied with this answer, because I know that syrup producers add a small amount of fat to the boiling sap, which prevents it from boiling over.  Could they possibly use lard? Vegetable oil? Cream? Butter? And does the butter make it milchig? Chalav stam?  Is the amount of fat so minute that it is considered to be batul ba’shishim, the halacha that states that if an ingredient is 1/60th or less of the total ingredients, it is null and void and is considered to “not exist” in the list of ingredients?  I know the 1/60th rule works in accidental cases (let’s say a drop of milk dripped into a huge pot of chicken soup – the soup would still be kosher).  But that’s in accidental cases – not l’hatchila (planning the 1/60th to begin with, on purpose).

I asked to speak with the rabbi in charge.

He told me that  butter can be used without a hechsher only if it is made from 100% cream – that certain chemical additives or dyes may not be kosher and so butter requires a hechsher otherwise.  But as to the rest – he excused himself and admitted that he simply didn’t know much about the process, and mirthfully added that he was appointing me as his “delegate” to check out maple syrup production first hand, and report my findings.

Like I said, it’s complicated being Jewish.

Maine is a very large state, and the sugar shacks are widespread throughout the state.  Fortunately for me, the Maine Maple Producers Association put together an interactive map, so it was easy to choose which sugar houses to visit.  Three are within 10 miles of my home.

I started making a few calls to the heimish syrup producers (though truthfully, I doubt there is any sugar producer in Maine who has heard of the word “heimish”). It turns out that very few people use lard as an anti-foaming agent.  One fellow uses butter, but he couldn’t tell me which brand of butter.  Another guy told me he uses only organic butter, but he didn’t know for sure if it was free of additives.  The last place I contacted was most interesting, though until I get there and try it for myself, I can’t tell you if it is the most tasty.

Balsam Ridge started, as most of these places do, as a hobby for its husband-and-wife team.  They started by tapping only a few trees, and boiling whatever they got in a large metal pot in their wood shed, producing enough for one or two jugs of syrup for themselves.  They started giving away small vials to their friends, whose enthusiasm led them to increase production.  They bought a big wood-fired evaporator and started cranking out enough syrup so that they could sell a few jugs to passersby.  The downside was that the larger evaporator took hours and hours to boil the sap, and it’s not like you can walk away from a giant vat of boiling syrup. The wood fire needed constant tending and stoking.  The syrup had to be constantly supervised so that it wouldn’t boil over, and a small amount of fat was added to prevent this – – until it got to just the right point (7 degrees above the boiling point of water) and the right thickness and consistency.   It then needed to be immediately filtered and bottled in sterilized containers.  Many nights they would finish past midnight and they were just plain exhausted.

So a couple of years ago, they bought a giant evaporator that is oil-fired, and can boil 50 gallons of sap an hour.  No more midnight sap boils for them!  Because the 2′ x 8′ evaporator is so large, and completely enclosed,  there is little fear of the sap boiling over; they no longer add any fat or anti-foaming agent to the syrup.  So while they don’t have kosher certification, this is one example of a syrup product that is not only kosher, but pareve and truly pure syrup.  But how does all this automation and modernization affect the taste?  Hopefully your Faithful Reporter will let you know after Maine Maple Syrup Sunday!

P.S. I also submitted a query to the OU’s “Webbe Rebbe” online, and got a reply from Rabbi Gold, who I spoke with on the phone to discuss syrup production. He says there are some (including the Nodah BYehuda) that allow for leniency in regards to batul ba’shishim l’hatchila, so it could be that all syrups, even those with questionable fats, could be considered not only kosher, but maybe even pareve.  However, the OU’s official policy is to not give a hechsher on those using the 1/60th l’hatchila leniency.

Figuring it Out

Last night, after an 11-hour drive from our home town to our place in Maine – – we arrived at 3:45 a.m. – – we came home to a freezing house.  No big deal – I’d just start a fire and head off to bed.

Sure enough, after layering the stove with newspaper, kindling, and dry wood, I got a roaring fire going with just one match.  The problem was that the fire  didn’t stop roaring.   Although the fire was contained within the wood stove, it was giving off so much heat that the stove-pipe made loud popping noises like it was getting ready to explode.  The glass door and soapstone sides were so hot that I thought they would crack or splinter.  I closed the damper thinking that less air and less draft would reduce the size of the fire, but it continued crackling and literally roaring.  Our house’s inside temperature went up from 56 degrees to 64 degrees in about 15 minutes.  Normally that might take a couple of hours.

Then our smoke alarm went off.  I made my exhausted, grumbling husband climb the retractable attic stairs to ensure there was no chimney or attic fire. (I am currently in an air cast nursing a broken foot so I couldn’t easily climb those stairs, or I wouldn’t have bothered him.)   As it was now 4:30 a.m., all that my husband could think about was his 8 a.m. teleconference with work , less than four hours from now.  After opening a few windows and turning on some ceiling fans, the smoke and fire alarm abated.  Once my husband was convinced that we weren’t in mortal danger, he trudged off to bed.  I, on the other hand, was convinced that if I fell asleep,  we might never wake up again.

I decided that I was going to stay up until the fire went out (you can’t really extinguish a wood-stove fire with water in a non-emergency, because you create a real mess in the house, including ash mud, and rusted cast iron which stains everything).  So I became a wood stove babysitter.  I stayed up until the logs were reduced to a nice layer of orange, glowing coals.  I then put a single log on the coals – and whoosh! – again the fire started roaring. The stove was again over-firing,  I couldn’t blame it on the most common cause – overloading the wood stove with too many logs.   The damper was at the lowest setting, so it wasn’t due to too much chimney draft.  In only ten minutes, the entire log was consumed – normally this takes a few hours.  This was one hot fire!

Stymied, I went on the internet to the wood stove manufacturer’s website.  I started reading manuals, troubleshooting guides, and FAQs.  The symptoms all pointed to over-firing the stove, meaning, it was running way too hot, and this is not a good thing.  Besides the obvious potential danger, over-firing a stove can damage it beyond repair by cracking the soapstone tiles or fire-brick lining, or ruining the chimney liner.  I only hoped that the extremely hot temperature surge hadn’t permanently ruined the stove.  I had visions of calling the nearest wood stove store, 40 miles away, and begging them to make what would be a very expensive house call and repair scheduled at their convenience, while meanwhile being unable to use the stove for who knows how long until they could come.

“Think!” I chided myself between yawns.  “Think!”

I read and re-read the specs several times.  Suddenly the technical aspects of wood stove engineering and design started to make sense!

It turns out that the ash box, the small tray that fits inside a locked door under the stove, must be closed, and it was.  But the grate to the ash box must also be closed.  As carefully as possible, I moved the hot coals to the side of the stove and scraped away as much ash as possible from the grate to try to see how it was positioned.  The grate was open!  Basically I had created a huge draft of air under the fire, which kept it stoked to an exaggerated degree.  Once I closed the grate, we were back in business.

A simple, elegant solution.

I realize that for most of my readers, this has been an incredibly dull post. Who the heck cares about an ash grate or a malfunctioning wood stove?

But for me, it was a very exciting revelation.  Because of our remote location and the time of night, I could not just pick up the phone and easily call for help.  I had to figure it out myself.  I had to stretch my brain cells.  I had to learn about something that really didn’t interest me all that much, and become so familiar with its operation that I could analyze cause and effect, and figure out a solution to a problem.    I struggled.  I was tired.  But for safety’s sake, I really couldn’t give up.  I persevered.  And I succeeded!

Although I was by now exhausted (the sun was coming up and I hadn’t yet come to bed!), it was a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.  While we don’t always succeed, or get the answers we seek, many of us have become rather complacent about trying, or exerting ourselves.  Don’t know the answer? Google it!  Call the repairman!  Instant gratification!

But there is something to be said for struggle, and whether it’s a struggle of the mundane (like an over-fired wood stove) or something bigger (i.e. acceptance of a manuscript after many rejections; a breakthrough in research after many failures).  We appreciate things so much more when we have to strive hard to obtain them, or to succeed.

I have nothing against internet search providers or repairmen (I was very happy to find wood-stove forums and manuals online in the middle of the night).  And most of us don’t have time to fiddle with things we know little about, have the interest or take the time to learn something new.  I am no foe of instant gratification, but it sure can make us lazy, spoiled and demanding!

Although I’m feeling a little cranky now due to lack of sleep, I’m feeling a great sense of accomplishment.

And it’s not only about a malfunctioning wood stove.