March is a time of community in Vermont. It’s the month when we have Town Meeting Day, an annual occasion on which people gather in each of the state’s 257 towns to make decisions about the year to come, and neighbor-cooked potluck meals are often involved. But there’s another sort of communal meal Vermonters enjoy every March, too: sugar-on-snow dinners.
These dinners center around maple syrup, Vermont’s most famous foodstuff. The syrup is heated to 235°F and then poured directly over fresh snow (or shaved ice). When the hot syrup comes into contact with the cold snow, a taffy-like treat is created in moments.
“The height of maple bliss, as far as I’m concerned, is the caramelized concoction that occurs when you pour very hot syrup onto a bowl packed with snow,” writes Amanda Feigl for Smithsonian. I very much concur.
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Yet the sugar-on-snow aspect of these dinners is actually the most straightforward part of the proceedings. It’s the other elements of the dinner that will have you scratching your head—but once you experience the meal, they’ll start to make sense.
Sugar on snow is served alongside a pickle—a dill pickle, to be precise—as well as a doughnut and coffee. Though it sounds strange, each element serves as an important foil to the super-sweet maple taffy. You can see a photo of the lineup courtesy of Miss Vermont, Alexina Federhen:
“The doughnuts may be used for dunking, and the pickles are eaten to overcome the sweet taste so that one may begin all over again,” said a 1939 recipe for sugar on snow printed in Yankee Magazine. According to one commenter on an article about the tradition in New England Today, the pickle will also help get the sticky maple taffy off of your teeth.
Delicious as the maple taffy, pickles, and doughnuts may be, many a sugar-on-snow dinner is framed as, well, a dinner, which means you’ll need a few more elements to make a square meal. As such, there are often heftier proteins involved.
Though many dinners dole out a small individual serving of snow and hot syrup to each guest, sugar on snow can also be created by pouring the syrup in long strips in a big tray (or vat) of snow and then rolling each strip of taffy onto a stick to hand out as treats.
Our neighbors to the north also boast a heavy focus on maple syrup; they even have a strategic reserve of it. A friend of mine traveled to Toronto for business and was surprised to see maple among the available sweeteners at a coffee bar. Because I live in Vermont, I was surprised he’d be surprised—we have that here, too, as well as tubes of coffee-infused maple syrup for whenever you need a dual sugar and caffeine rush in a pinch.
In Canada, sugar on snow is called maple taffy in English-speaking regions and tire d’érable (“drawn maple”) in French-speaking regions.
If you find yourself in Vermont (or Canada!) this month, be sure to look around for sugarhouses, each of which will have smoke billowing out of it. Some of the sugarhouses serve sugar on snow to patrons. Otherwise, you can keep your eyes peeled for a church or community center with a sandwich board out front advertising a sugar on snow dinner. If you’ve never experienced it before, you are quite literally in for a treat.