The Big Boil Down

The other Boil Down attendees are either 10 years younger or 10 years older than I am. I’d predicted this: It’s Saturday morning. But I am not fazed.

The morning of Saturday, March 10 has perfect Boil Down weather. It’s a clear, crisp 42-degree day, one of a few days of sunshine sandwiched between two nor’easters. I wake up readier than ever to see soft, slowly boiling viscous substances and to enrich myself with sweet, sweet knowledge about the region in which I now live.

The 15th Annual Maple Syrup Community Boil Down is a five-minute walk from Union Square and a 30-minute walk from campus. Groundwork Somerville, a local nonprofit, runs the Boil Down at the Somerville Community Growing Center, a quarter acre of green space “where community grows” that’s converted into a mini maple syrup expo on Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. I am serenaded with soft harmonica music and the sweet smell of boiling sugar as I walk up the Vidal Avenue hill to the Center.

The Center is neither super full nor super loud, and it’s welcoming—my hungry path to maple syrup enlightenment and New England assimilation, one informational table or activity station at a time, seems like the perfect decision. I’m here at the right time, too: February and March are prime maple syrup season, according to Jordan Penny, a volunteer with Groundwork Somerville. “Nothing else grows,” she adds.

I look around. The other Boil Down attendees are either 10 years younger or 10 years older than I am. I’d predicted this: It’s Saturday morning. But I am not fazed. I explore the Growing Center, trying to decide which station to visit first—I’m here to learn, after all.

Walking in further, I see arts and crafts—paper cutting, origami, mosaics–all featuring a vague maple tree motif. There’s also a maple syrup boiler in the back, a huge metal object that consists of a basin at the top and a space underneath for firewood. Penny narrates: “We’re pouring four-gallon buckets [of sap] in at a time, and it’s kind of melting down—it’s a slow evaporation process—and what’s left after a whole day of boiling is the sugars,” she says. “It takes 40 gallons of sap just to make one gallon of syrup.”

She offers me some sap, which has the consistency and taste of warm water with a only hint of sweetness—this sap still has a whole day of boiling before it’ll become maple syrup.

This year, Groundwork Somerville collected 150 gallons of sap from trees at Tufts University for teaching demonstrations, amounting to less than 4 gallons of syrup. I worry about the health of the trees losing so much liquid, but later learn drilling holes in these trees to drain out sap doesn’t hurt them. Josia V. DeChiara, Youth Education Coordinator at Groundwork Somerville, tells me, “You can just take a little bit every year for years and years, and the trees will still stay healthy. It’s amazing.”

Newfound maple syrup knowledge in hand, I now decide to venture to the hands-on portion of my visit. I visit a station where volunteers use a slice of a sugar maple trunk and a drill to show us how to drain out the sap. The demonstration slice is peppered with pre-existing drill holes, even on the top of the slice. I ask why: It turns out that the elementary school students enjoy operating the hand drill so much that they don’t want to stop drilling once they start. Eager kids line up behind me, waiting their turn.

I do not know how to drill a hole in a sugar maple trunk, but I still am not fazed. This, after all, is what I came to school in Boston to learn about: Flannel shirts! Maple leaves! Bad driving! This is real New England! The whole event is quintessential Massachusetts—even the the boiler in the Growing Center was made from scratch by Somerville high school students.

According to DeChiara, the children here—elementary school and high school students alike—know so much about maple syrup because many of them are graduates of Groundwork Somerville’s Maple Syrup Project. The nonprofit teaches a “maple syrup class” to students in Somerville public schools. “We recruit volunteers to go into all the second-grade classrooms to teach a series of four maple syrup lessons, which culminate in a field trip where all of the students are invited to come to the Somerville Growing Center,” DeChiara says. “We had 200 students yesterday and the other 200 or so will be here next week.”

Volunteer teachers, working with district requirements, lead four different lessons in different departments: math, science, history, English. “I was really impressed with their memory of the different parts of the tree,” Penny says.

Many Boil Down attendees have children in the Somerville public school system and found out about this event from school mailing lists. Attendee Richard Pattinson is here because of the Somerville High School newsletter. “I think it’s wonderful, these community events,” he says, his toddler son bouncing up and down next to him. Here, maple syrup education starts early. “I have a three-year old who’s obsessed with maple syrup,” attendee Emily G. Hickey says.

But maple syrup education is not only for elementary school students (and me). Groundwork Somerville hosts a Sap on Tap maple brunch that features maple beer. The growing season was so healthy this year that, according to the event description, Groundwork Somerville “had so much sap this year [they] decided to not just make maple syrup but beer too!”

By the time I leave the event, I feel like I’m still sticky with maple syrup. It’s not a bad feeling, to know that I drank half-boiled maple sap out of a Costco-sized sample cup while being serenaded by harmonicas. As a recent Boston transplant, I reflect, I couldn’t ask for anything better. Maybe someday, in my next three years of living in Cambridge, I’ll become a maple syrup connoisseur just like all of those Somerville Public Schools second graders. Maybe, as a senior, I’ll be spending the winters writing my thesis and sipping Tetra Maple brew. It started with this Boil Down. Will I ever be able to go back?

I keep tasting maple syrup as the 86 bus takes me back to campus.

—Magazine writer Alicia M. Chen can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @aliciamchen.