SPRUCE GUM AND SPRUCE BEER (October 25/96)

Maggie was the outlaw of our old school and even by today’s standards he was eccentric. He got his nickname because he often stashed jars of maggots in a back pocket of his jeans, carrying them around for days until they were “ripe for fishing.”

Most of the time we ignored Maggie’s odd ways. We forgave his eccentricities because he always knew where to find the best spruce gum and no one made spruce beer as tasty as his.

I’m sure if I mentioned spruce gum to the kids today, they mildest reaction would be horror and disbelief. There was a time, however, when spruce gum was as popular with kids as the treks today to McDonald’s or Pizza Delight.

Even as late as the 50s when I was a teen, spruce gum was a treasured spring treat. We scoured the local woodlots from April to May hoping to collect enough gum to carry us through to fall when the trees would be ready to scrape again. There was a knack to finding the best trees and selecting suitable gum and, as I said, my boyhood chum Maggie was the champion collector of the neighbourhood.

I don’t know how he learned to tell – some said from a Micmac friend – but Maggie always knew when the spruce gum was “ripe” and ready for collecting. Later when he was older, Maggie told me his father had been a lumberjack in the early 1900s in Queens County. From his father Maggie learned to identify the black spruce, which of all the spruces yields the best gum. It was his father who said the gum had to be ripe (at its best for chewing) before being collected and there was even a test to determine if it was ready. “Chew the gum a bit and if it gets a kind of pinkish tinge to it then it’s ripe and ready,” Maggie used to say in his best woodsman guru voice.

After experimenting I found that the gums of other spruces were chewable. I did a project on trees in high school, mentioning Maggie by the way, which is why I’m able to quote him accurately now and write about his expertise. In the project I listed the gums or resins of other trees that I had tried and I included Maggie’s recipe for spruce beer.

Historically, spruce beer was once used to combat scurvy. I don’t think Maggie had scurvy in mind when he boiled spruce twigs and needles, added molasses and yeast cake on toast to start the fermentation process. That beer was terrible stuff so don’t be tempted to try making it, unless of course you suspect you have scurvy. I once foolishly joked that drinking Maggie’s spruce beer was like drinking a Christmas tree, since the smell and taste were similar. Maggie wouldn’t give me another sample until a year later.

I don’t know about spruce beer, but at one time there was a market for spruce gum in the United States. The gathering, cleaning and packing of spruce gum was a spring ritual that brought many scarce dollars to 19th century homesteaders. The resin of the spruce was the first commercial chewing gum in the States and until a chicle-based gum was developed, commercial buyers took all that Nova Scotians could collect.

Commercial gums killed the sale of spruce gum to the States. But even after Wrigley’s saturated the market we still collected and chewed spruce gum. Maggie discovered that it blended nicely with Juicy Fruit.

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