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strange and wholesome: box elder syrup

March 20, 2012

Last week Col learned about St. Patrick’s day at school. “I guess if you don’t wear green there’s this elf that pinches you,” Col said matter-of-factly before asking, “but do we even celebrate it?”

I thought of the year I bought a creepy, fat-spangled rectangle of corned beef from the supermarket, blood sponging off of it into its plastic wrap. And all the following years that I marked St. Patrick’s day simply as the day after which it was safe to plant peas at 6512 feet.

“I guess not,” I told Col.

But, it turns out we have so many spring traditions that I’m feeling like an anthropologist studying our own family for clues to the season: oh look, there’s the father driving *and* scoping the hillsides for antlers, and hey, there’s the mother sifting carrot seeds into soil, laughing nuttily to herself  as snow plasters her glasses.

For Rose, so far, outside looks a lot like inside.

Thank goodness for the ever-giving contents of our shed. Col’s making a robot, if you couldn’t tell. Although, after hustling upstairs to grab snacks, I came back down to find Col with 4 different flammable chemicals he filched from Dan’s work bench, all lined up like matchbox cars. Zoiks!

Another sign that spring is peeking around the snowy corners of our lives is that the very air of our house is fogged up with sweet sugar steam. (also, we’re in short sleeved nirvana one day, then back to thick jackets the next).

It’s always hit or miss, which of our wacky projects the kids will take to. Maybe it’s the novelty of this being our first time tapping trees with the kids, or maybe it’s the way we bump suspensefully around the neighborhood with our rag-tag sugar cart, knocking on doors like we’re part of some religious cult. Or maybe it’s that the kids can participate by drilling holes, hammering spiles (fancy word for “taps”), and hanging buckets, that they’ve loved this sugaring season so much.

the sugar cart aka $5 garage sale stroller that the kids would *love* to be schlepped around in still

knobbly old box elder

An original wooden tap we made with our mailman 15 years ago (who helped us match trees with homeowners), still in the tree! 

Hot stuff McTapperson and young grasshopper with antler mallet

the plastic tubing recommended by Jennifer, was crucial for directing the sap into the bucket, while keeping out legions of insects and barky bits

jars of sap hobnobbing with pinto beans on the front porch/auxiliary kitchen

not FDA-approved

The whole thing is so comically urban. We accidentally woke up this heavily pierced dude whose front yard box elder tree was so stunningly large that Rose and I braved his ferocious, man-eating dogs to knock on his door. “It’s my grandma’s tree,” he said, rubbing his eyes and squinting down on us with our stroller full of strange and wholesome equipment. “It doesn’t hurt the tree.” I offered cheerily.

“Oh, you couldn’t hurt that tree if you tried.” He grumbled and then eventually conceded, “be my guest.”

We tapped the tree at the Unitarian Church on our street (Rose calls it the U Choose Church, instead of UU, which seems fitting) and then last Sunday Dan gave an informational demo to the Sunday school class complete with syrup tasting.

Box elder syrup seems to be in the same category as acorn meal, or chokecherries, AKA don’t ponder too much the energy it takes to yield food, which in this case: 3 gallons boils down to about oh, 1 cup. But that one cup is heavenly, even if you boil it too long and it turns into a thick glump of caramel that you have to extract with a knife.

puddle of box elder syrup

Love your strange and wholesome friend,



* also, I have another essay on Mamalode this week. It’s called With Daddy and it’s about some of Dan’s strange and wholesome tendencies. An excerpt: Some dads discover excellent kid-friendly restaurants or half-price family day at the ski hill, and well, some suss out hobo caves. 

Mamalode is that site where you get paid based on views. And I should explain that while my dear sweet friend Kati was trying to help me out by clicking on my last Mamalode essay every 1/2 hour, they’re smarter than that over there. It’s unique views, which is fancy. So share on your Facebook page or your twitter chain-letter or with your homies down at the park, or however you like to get the word out.

This is what our last day trip “with Daddy” yielded: anasazi pottery littering the ground like leaves.

* also #2, my friend Susan, who is one of the loveliest writers on the internet (and beyond), has an essay in the latest issue of Ms. Magazine called Four (same-sex) Weddings and a Funeral. You should totally check it out.

* also, #3: the evening grosbeaks are back and we’re all happily flipping out over the privilege of spending $10/week to keep them in sunflower seed. Any spring visitors in your neck of the woods?

Das all.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Kathy permalink
    March 21, 2012 7:43 am

    I love this Durango and nature fix you offer! I needed to know the grosbeaks arrived too! Honestly! You share with us so many gems of your life there. Thank you, thank you!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 21, 2012 7:46 am

      Kathy, And the vultures are back! Flew back in on the first day of spring to rousing cheers from our family.

  2. teresa permalink
    March 21, 2012 9:06 am

    love the visual of you guys pushing 5 gallon buckets through the neighborhood tapping box elders! great fun!

    (shared your article on facebook. hope it helps! it is a great one. teaching children that they always have a home in nature, as well as in your house, is sooooo important!!)


  3. March 21, 2012 9:18 am

    i love that you go around your hood knocking on doors like the homesteading version of 7th day adventists. “hello folks, i’d like to talk to you about the good word. and that word is SYRUP.”

    do your co-conspirators ever want to taste the finished product? and my heart cheered at the ridiculousness of the input vs. the output, and it’s so gratifying that we do these things out of enthusiasm and love.

    here the crows and hawks are back to their territorial dance as baby bird season explodes…the other day our tree out front was a house finch orgy. every branch had a male and female pair, with lots of beak rubbing and sexy chirping. xo

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 22, 2012 10:41 am

      Homesteading 7th day adventists! So far the U Choose Church were the only folks interested in a sample. xo

  4. Melissa permalink
    March 21, 2012 10:25 am

    I cannot get over how old Rose looks sitting cross-legged in that chair! Time is such a funny thing.

    I really can’t imagine anyone denying you access to your tree when you show up all together like that, Rose with her pink frilly skirt under her jacket and everything. I’m still picturing you convincing the pierced grandson. Awesome!

    • Melissa permalink
      March 21, 2012 10:26 am

      *their tree*, even

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 22, 2012 10:44 am

      Exactly. That’s our plan. Sending Rose to the door could disarm anyone. xo

  5. March 21, 2012 10:41 am

    Here in the mountains of Montana we have seen Mountain Bluebirds which is always a sign of spring. Also, the swans and geese are on their migratory path and just this morning I saw a loon. Ahh, birds…I love them. Also, it’s always fun to see the resident deer herd antler-less. On our walks we keep a sharp eye on the ground in the hopes of getting “lucky” but nothing yet. The sap looks yummy…wish I had the patience.

    Off to Mamalode…

  6. March 21, 2012 1:08 pm

    Oh my strange and wholesome friend, I wouldn’t have you any other way!

    BTW, I made dandelion greens the other night and totally thought of you. How do you prepare them? :)

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 22, 2012 10:26 am

      OOh Justine, Love hearing about your dandelion green eating. How’d it go over with the family? I like them raw in salads the best, but cooked as you would spinach is great too. xo

  7. March 22, 2012 9:17 am

    groovy mailman! :)

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 22, 2012 10:47 am

      I know! You may or may not be surprised to hear that I used to walk his route with him, hoping to soak up the true knowledge of the neighborhood.

  8. March 22, 2012 9:22 am

    hahahahaha your mamalode article is great, as usual. the part about your home being open to the kids as well made me snarf my tea.

  9. March 22, 2012 10:06 am

    Yum! Up here there is a lot of concern about the maple syrup yields with such high temperatures (and staying warm overnight). How did you guys find it this year?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 25, 2012 2:41 pm

      Hard to say, we collected such a small amount and don’t think the volume of box elder sap ever compares to that of maples. xo

  10. March 22, 2012 1:11 pm

    Where did that “wear green or you’ll get pinched” story come from anyway? My 4yo came home from school spouting it too. He forgot all about it on the 17th and wore red. Leprechauns, be damned!

    I’ve found ice cream making to be a similar process to your syrup making. 14 gallons and 50 bucks of ingredients and, voila!, nary a pint to share!

  11. March 22, 2012 4:56 pm

    Hello strange & wholesome friend,

    wow, chiildren really are such fun(ny) and awesome people, aren’t they?

    Question: When one of your children says something like what Col said about green clothes / leprechauns, how do you react?

    Cheers, K.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 25, 2012 2:44 pm

      K – how do I react? I probably said something like “hmmm, interesting.”

  12. Jamie permalink
    March 25, 2012 11:47 pm

    I love your grosbeaks! Our tree/bird feeder/lawn is getting visits from: 1 male squirrel, a coupled off pair of red headed finches, some chickadees, a house sparrow or two, a few robins, a few flickers, and even a whole troop of male blue jays (which I absolutely adore!). The kids and I sit mesmerized for moments at a time, watching them all do their thing through the window. Well, that and my son is in love with any traffic that drives by as well :)

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