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Author Interview: David Leff, 'Maple Sugaring: Keeping It Real In New England'


David Leff has tapped into trees. Literally at times in his Connecticut neighborhood. He has watched and worried as the tin buckets he had hung on trunks slowly filled with sap. He has lugged them back to an evaporator and then during many a late night, waited for the vats of precious liquid to boil.   

David Leff is passionate about maple sugaring. He’s a former board member of the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut and a former deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. He’s written a book about the simple complexity of transforming tree sap into the rich, sweet syrup that pairs -- oh so perfectly -- with pancakes and waffles. It’s called, “Maple Sugaring: Keeping it Real in New England.”

Leff sat down with WSHU Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser to discuss his book.


Do you think that most people really know what true maple syrup really is?

I think that a lot of people are confused. A lot of people have grown up on cheaper, what they call, table syrups or pancake syrups, that are much thicker, they’re cloying. And maple syrup when they first try it is kind of foreign to them. But they try it a few times and they‘ll never go back. Now, they call it table syrup, maybe it’s made out of tables. I know that maple syrup is made out of the pure sap of the maple tree.  

You point out in the preface that your book about maple sugaring is not a history, it’s not a memoir, it’s not a guide to making syrup. What is it then?

I will say that it has elements of all of that. But what makes it unique among the maple literature is that it’s the story of maple sugaring as told by the maple sugar makers, who are kind of a quirky bunch. Because most of them do it part-time. And so some of them are farmes, of course, some of them are bankers, lawyers, tradesmen, grocery store clerks, every walk of life is represented in the sugar maker community, and that’s what makes it so special.   

The range of people you describe in your book are fascinating. You describe what they do, they tap and boil sap. They all seem to have in common is a crazy devotion to what sounds like a very intense process.

They have a passion for it. And the passion grows as you do it. Some of them describe it as a contagious disease, an addiction. Sugar makers, they start out small and then they grow and they grow and they grow. Because the labor, as hard as it is and as intense as it is for that six-week period during sugar making season, the labor is its own reward. It has a value in and of itself. It’s transformative because, first of all no one is as sensitive to the change of the season from late winter to spring as a sugar maker. You’re sensitive to temperature, the wind, the amount of sunlight because all that makes a difference in the creation of maple syrup and the amount of sap that you get. And so they’re very attuned to the natural world. The other part of it is, it’s very social. Because when you’re boiling sap, boiling sap is almost made of time. So when you have that time and the steam is rising from your sugar house, your friends, your neighbors, your relatives know that that’s a welcome mat. Rising steam is a welcome and people come in and jabber and pass the time. And you’re open to that because you’re not busy doing something else that you can’t listen.  

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.