March 19, 2022
Isabella Abbott visits a sugar bush, while she was teaching at Nichols School
With the first new moon after February 26, Sizubakud kegizis or sugar making moon began. Mississauga families spent much of the winter in hunting camps throughout the Kawarthas, but with this new season, they returned to their villages. Residents of Rice Lake made sugar on Sugar Island, and also at lot 5 concession IV Monaghan, while Curve Lake had a camp at 18 III & IV Smith. Taking with them clay (or by the nineteenth century usually copper, brass or iron) kettles, they started collecting wood to stoke the fires. Using a hatchet they gouged each tree, inserted a wooden spile, and collected sap in birch bark vessels or wooden troughs. While the sap could be left in the sun on a piece of birch bark to make a sort of taffee, it was generally boiled. Younger women carried the sap, while their elders tended the fire, stirred the sap, and cooled it. They stored large quantities of aninatik sisipakwat or maple sugar in mococks (birch containers).
The sugar maple was the most common local tree before the Kawarthas were transformed into an agricultural landscape. The early settlers quickly adopted the Mississaugas’ techniques, making maple sugar a dietary staple for practically everyone. Each farm family either had a sugar bush, or gathered with their neighbours. Refined sugar was an imported luxury good, that even the wealthiest aspiring gentry rarely had. For most people, maple sugar was the only sweetener or confection available, so families made sure they produced enough to last a year.
Before the advent of the modern, international food networks that we now take for granted, winter was a time of hardship. Missisaguas relied on the unpredictable returns from hunting and trapping, supplemented with mnoomin (wild rice) that had been stored. Farm families got by on meat (perhaps barreled salt pork), potatoes and carrots—the same thing, day, after day. Homemade bread was a luxury.
Sugar making season was in many ways a wonderful time of the year. The cold winds of winter were almost over, the days were getting longer, and before long the first sprouts of spring would appear. It was a time for communities to come together, share stories around the fire, and cherish the first produce of spring. Having survived the winter on what little they had, the first maple taffee of the season was special indeed.