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Sap Moon, and a Recipe for ‘Hot Coco Cocoa’

The following is an excerpt from Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection by Jessica Prentice. It has been adapted for the Web.

Once again we shall
See the snow melt
Taste the flowing sap
Touch the budding seeds.
Smell the whitening flowers
Know the renewal of life.

—From an Anishnabeg (Ojibway) thanksgiving for spring, translated from the Anishnabeg

Following the Hunger Moon, just before the first thaw after the cold winter, comes the Sap Moon. Though snow and ice still cover the ground throughout the North, the very first movements of spring stir within the forest trees. The sap of renewed life begins to rise up through the trunks, making its slow and steady way to the outermost tips of the branches where it will nurture the buds that will become new leaves.

While all northern trees produce sap at this time of year, the sugar maple in particular inspired the naming of the Sap Moon. Maple sap runs from the first sign of thaw until the first buds appear on the trees—a period of four to six weeks, depending on the weather. During this phase of the year, in times past, the northern dwellers of the eastern part of this continent would begin to check the maple trees for the sweet sap that was an important source of food. When the sap was running it was time to head for your nearest grove of sugar maples, called a sugar bush, begin tapping the trees, collecting sap, and pouring it into large pots for sugaring. What a lovely thing to contemplate: people stirring huge cauldrons of boiling maple sap with a wooden spoon over a fire in the midst of a snowy wood. The fragrance of the sap as it evaporated slowly into thick, sweet syrup must have been intoxicating.

The first peoples to harvest maple sap were the indigenous peoples of the northern woodlands, where the sugar maple, Acer saccharum, is both native and prodigious. For many cultures—the Anishnabeg (or Ojibway or Chippewa), Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquody, Penobscot, Potawatomi, and Iroquois, to name a few—tapping maple trees was an annual ritual. The sap is watery and clear; Native peoples drank it as a spring tonic beverage and used it to make vinegar. European colonists often called it maple water. An Iroquois legend explains how the secret of maple sugaring was discovered. A chief named Woksis threw his tomahawk into a tree before leaving on a hunt. As the weather warmed, the sap began to flow from the gash into a container that happened to be sitting by the tree. The woman of the house found the container full of liquid, assumed her thoughtful husband had already been to the stream to fetch it full of water, and used it to boil the evening’s meat. As the meat stewed, the sap cooked down into syrup, and thus the secret of maple sugaring was revealed.

The Sap Moon was also often called the Sugar Moon. The process of reducing maple sap is called sugaring, and most indigenous peoples that relied on maple sap as a primary source of carbohydrate, flavor, and nutrition cooked the sap down past the syrup stage and into the sugar stage, at which point it crystallizes. Solid sugar was much easier to transport than liquid syrup, and was conveniently packaged in birch-bark containers often called mokuks, which held from twenty to thirty pounds each.

Indigenous communities often moved camp during the sap season to be close to a sugar bush, and passed the entirety of the month or so while the sap ran there, engaged full-time in making sugar. They kept enough sugar for the community and then traded, sold, or gave away the rest. In 1896 a European American observer of indigenous culture wrote:

The season of sugar-making came when the first crow appeared. This happened about the beginning or middle of March, while there was yet snow on the ground. This period of the season was looked forward to with great interest, and, as among the Minnesota Ojibwa today, became a holiday for everybody. Each female head of a household had her own sugar hut, built in a locality abounding in maple trees which might or might not have been convenient to her camp, but which was the place always resorted to by her, and claimed by right of descent through her mother’s family and totem.

Early American colonists quickly adapted sugaring techniques to their own technologies. They used spouts, buckets, and huge iron cauldrons to boil the sap down into sugar. Farmers in the northern regions added sugaring to their repertoire of homesteading skills. Benjamin Rush, in 1792, wrote:

No more knowledge is necessary for making this sugar than is required to make soap, cyder, beer, sour crout, etc., and yet one or all of these are made in most of the farm houses of the United States. The kettles and other utensils of a farmer’s kitchen, will serve most of the purposes of making sugar and the time required for the labor, (if it deserve that name) is at a season when it is impossible for the farmer to employ himself in any species of agriculture.

For homesteading farmers and indigenous peoples alike, maple sugaring was the main contribution that could be made to the food supply at this time of year, and the products are utterly delicious. Another note made about the indigenous northerners was: “Generally, they prefer their maple sugar to the West Indian cane sugar, and say that it tastes more fragrant—more of the forest.”

Hot Coco Cocoa

Serves 1–2

I make this hot cocoa at least once a week! Sometimes I like to froth it in my milk frother until it is foamy (do this between steps 4 and 5).

  • 1/4 cup filtered water
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups raw whole milk
  • Few grains of sea salt
  1. Heat the water in a small, heavybottomed saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Add the palm sugar and cocoa powder. Whisk vigorously as the mixture comes to a simmer until both sugar and cocoa are dissolved.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients.
  4. Heat gently until the cocoa feels hot to the touch, but not so hot that you can’t keep your finger there (about 110° F).
  5. Remove from heat and pour into warm cups or mugs.


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