Cabane à sucre, drenched in hot Catholic guilt
I first realized my love for maple syrup around puberty, when my parents went on vacation and my babysitter let me eat pancakes for every meal. First it was with artificial table syrup, an atrocity typical in southern Ontario and everywhere else in the world besides Québec. Later on, I became hooked on the golden stuff. I did not deliberately move to Montreal for greater accessibility to real maple syrup, but it would be deceptive of me to say that I had ignored the abundance of tree cum in this city before I decided to live here.
Last Saturday I acquired a Jeep Wrangler and left the city to partake in the maple syrup-laden, all-you-can-eat ritual known as cabane à sucre, or in English, sugar shack. The countryside around Mirabel, Québec, was brown with freshly melted snow. Horses along the highway ate out of troughs (this is my attempt at foreshadowing). After about an hour of driving by scary colonial churches, I’d arrived. There were three sugar shacks all in a row, with another old church lodged in the middle of the parking lots. The parking lots were all full of SUVs, pick-up trucks, and yellow school buses even though it was Saturday.
It was loud inside the building. The wooden interior gave the place a warm, subtle feeling. I got into a velvet-roped queue, and an old woman wearing a suit gave me my pass to the all-you-can-eat seating.
Confused about where to go next, I ended up in an arcade with lots of families hanging around. The sign on the wall said “dining room” in French, so I considered sitting down even though there was no food anywhere. I eventually left and passed by a glittery shop of homemade Québecois food. A middle-aged man wearing a suit and glasses from the ‘70s took my ticket and ripped the stub off. I was then herded into a giant dining hall with tree branches everywhere. There were miniature syrup farm rigs around the tables. Instructional signs with pictures of Minnie Mouse on them reminded us to tip.
It was a lot to take in all at once. I was hyper stimulated, and buzzing with anticipation. Customary of sugar shack tradition, I was seated at a long table, which could fit maybe 50 people. The meal itself was a reliable variety of traditional maple farm food. Pea soup (a provincial classic), a giant omelet, lots of ham, homemade ketchup, baked beans, pickles, coleslaw, plain boiled potato (why), and a bucket of pork rinds (...). The only thing that was missing was cretons, which is usually a part of the sugar shack spread. (Cretons is a pâté made of pork fat, which people seem passionately divided over.)
A glorious bottle of maple syrup stood erect before me. It was beautiful. Is there anything on this planet more perfect than that sugary sap? My blood percolates at the mere thought of it (I am also aware that this feeling could actually be my pancreas shriveling in fear). UNLIMITED SYRUP. Unlimited everything.
This particular sugar shack decided to serve pancakes after the main course, as a sort of dessert, which I thought was unusual. The server angels also came around with maple syrup pie and maple syrup pudding cake, all with sides of soft serve ice cream. It was a dream come true. This isn’t even the most salient part. I am just doing my job describing the meal to you before I get to the real sugar shack phenomenon, which is outside, behind the dining hall.
Bloated and metabolically unstable, I went over to the circus happening out back. Children were racing 4-wheelers, and a large colorful blow-up slide towered over the main building. Hordes of people were loitering around garbage cans, licking maple syrup off popsicle sticks, like some kind of oversized insect colony. There was a marionette show. A horse-drawn carriage awaited passengers. All the while, the bare trees, grey skies, and crows circling overhead gave the whole scene an air of nightmares.
I went into a two-dollar petting zoo, which was filled with the screams of birds, goats, children. The animals looked stressed, limp, and unhealthy. We were all crammed, with little space to move, an ironic display of domestication. Upstairs there was a room filled with hundreds of dolls. A deranged, creepy song played through the loudspeaker, with children’s voices singing about manipulating dolls in phantasmagoria. For reasons unknown to me, these types of attractions are typical at a cabane à sucre.
I was gassy and constipated, and ended up in a large barn where I was encouraged to eat as much tire sur la neige, or Canadian maple taffy, as I wanted. A winding trough of snow divided the barn in half, where syrup-men delivered hot syrup on one side, and fiending syrup-eaters on the other side collected the hot syrup from the snow with popsicle sticks. I realize this all sounds strange and may be difficult to visualize, but this is what happens when you build a entire culture around boiled tree ejaculate.
After eating two of the ten maple taffies that were poured for me, I went on a horse ride through the woods, along tubes of sap-collecting rigs woven through the trees. It was an eerie scene with collapsed barns and unknown machines sqeaking all around me.
I drove back to the city in a daze, still trying to digest everything that had just happened. Horror movies are made of the stuff of sugar shacks, as well as heart disease, diabetes, and delicious, rapturous sin.