Sticky Situation

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This column originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on February 25, 2004

When Gordon Jones and Sherrie Yarling decided to
leave their home in southern Florida in
search of falling leaves and four   authentic seasons, they did a kind of
reverse Beverly Hillbillies, hitching   their Cadillac to a trailer and
moving to Yarling family property in the far   reaches of Brown County.  Once there they spent several years in the shiitake   mushroom-growing
business, happily selling dinner-plate-sized mushrooms to   upscale local
restaurants.   

Fate intervened, however, as fate is wont to
do, in this case disguised as an elderly stranger who appeared on their
property one day looking for firewood. Recalling how his
great-great-grandmother had made syrup from the bark of Brown County shagbark hickory trees, he inspired Gordon and Sherrie to give it a try.
Through trial and error, they perfected a recipe for the syrup, and
gradually gave up   mushrooms altogether to focus on the new venture.

These days the production and marketing of
shagbark hickory syrup (as well as poplar syrup and a luscious barbeque sauce)
keep them busy on a full time basis. When they aren’t making syrup
itself they   are on the road, selling their wares. I first met them at
the end of January   at the Traders Point Creamery market in Zionsville,
where they plied me with   syrupy samples and crunchy hickory candied corn
puffs (absolutely dangerous!),   showed me a New York Times article that
had just been written about them, and   said sure, I could come out
sometime and see how it was all done.

We picked a gray, sleet-filled afternoon to visit, getting ourselves lost on
slick roads, amid glittering trees and fields glassy with ice. We were
thankful to be welcomed into their cozy home, redolent of wood fire and
pungent cigarette smoke. Their standard poodle was as ecstatic as we
were that   we had finally made it, and Gordon and Sherrie greeted us with
almost as much   enthusiasm, laughingly showing off the electric neon pink
flamingo in their   entry way, offering us a choice of hot coffee or cold
vodka, and ushering us   to comfortable chairs by the fire.

Gordon is the kind of guy whose personality
fills whatever room he’s in. Equal parts bon vivant, entrepreneur, and
inventor, he looks like he enjoys every minute of his life. With a shake of
his leonine head and his craggy face creased with enjoyment, he settles
back   to tell us his story. Sherrie, bird-thin, sitting on a couch
surrounded by   scattered files and notes, is poised to supply facts and
details as needed.   

As soon as we sit, they are off and running,
trading reminiscences, finishing each other’s sentences, and happily following
each other down conversational trails that may or may not find their way
back   to the destination they were aiming for. They glance off many
subjects—the   well-known chefs who use their syrup; how they got the New
York store, Dean   and Deluca, to carry their products; when the Food
Network might air the   already-taped segment on their syrup; and what
happens when Gourmet magazine   or Midwest Living unexpectedly runs a
story about you and you find yourself   with 3,500 orders to fill and
there are only the two of you on hand to do it.   

They tell their life story as a glorious,
quirky adventure full of surprises and successes and interesting people and
they want their listeners to enjoy it as much as they do. I do enjoy it
– I am   laughing almost the whole time I am with them. These folks are
truly a hoot.   

Amid stories and laughter we get a tour of the
production facility. Shagbark syrup is not made from tree sap but is
rather   extracted from the bark itself. The place where it all happens is
spotless and   cleverly improvised. Gordon has rigged the machinery
himself, making use of  hair driers and other household appliances where
necessary. There is more than   a touch of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate
Factory in the whole business, but it all comes together like clockwork in the
end.

In a corner, over a gas fireplace, a box fan is
suspended from the ceiling by a cable, turning slowly to circulate warm
air   through the room. We see the huge containers where the bark is
washed   thoroughly by hand, the 125-gallon commercial coffee maker where
the   extraction process takes place, and the vats where the hickory
extract is   aged, and sugared, and then gravity-fed back to a tank where
it is cooked down   to syrup. It is pumped into the bottling area where
the bottles are filled and   capped, and finally it is ready to eat.

Ah yes, the eating. When I first tasted this
syrup, I had my doubts. Although Ronni Lundy, writing in Gourmet, was thrilled
to find the syrup that had become legend in her childhood, she described
it as   having a bit of a “whang.” I don’t know what that is,
but shagbark hickory   syrup certainly has it. No mellow golden maple
syrup here. Sipped from a   spoon, it has an edge. You take a bite and it
bites you back.

But that is the syrup in a spoon, straight up.
Add it to the right food, and it is transformed into an unimaginable
gustatory   pleasure. Lundy suggests corncakes and with her recipe at
hand, one night we   gave it a try. Not fluffy, air-filled pancakes, these
were thin and dense and   corny. With sweet butter and hickory syrup they
were homey and delicious.   

Scrolling through the recipes that are lavishly
supplied on Hickoryworks’ web site I found more exotic fields to
explore.   Shagbark hickory glazed salmon, crispy hickory spareribs,
hickory and ginger   ice cream — the list is long and mouthwatering. We
tried a simple one — sweet   potato French fries with shagbark hickory
syrup — just to round out our high-carb   pancake dinner with some more
carbs.

Good heavens, they were great. Hand cut potatoes, twice fried, sprinkled
liberally with salt and pepper and with that “whangy” syrup
drizzled on top.   Crispy, sweet, spicy — they were absolutely drop-dead
sensational. When I   finished writing the first draft of this column, I
read it to my husband. He   liked it, all except that last sentence.
“Yeah, they were so much better than   that, though,” he said
wistfully. And he’s right, they were.

Hickoryworks is not open to the public, but you
can order Hickoryworks Shagbark Hickory Syrup directly from their Web
site,   www.hickoryworks.com,
where a 16-ounce jug costs $16 including shipping, from Dean and Deluca
(though that’s pricier), or buy it at one of the central Indiana markets
they   attend. In the winter they are at Traders Point on the second and
fourth   Saturday of each month. See   www.tpforganics.com
for the schedule and directions. It can occasionally be found as an
ingredient  in the evening specials menu at Restaurant Tallent and the
Limestone Grille.   

Deep Fried
Sweet   Potatoes with Shagbark Hickory Syrup

February 25, 2004

Peel sweet potatoes and cut as for thin french
fries. Heat several inches of oil in a deep skillet. If you are using a
deep   fryer, follow appliance instructions.

Blanch potatoes in hot (300 degree) oil for
about 5-6 minutes, until limp but not changed in color. Drain on paper towel
and let cool. Increase oil temperature to 350 degrees. Fry potatoes a
second   time for 2-3 minutes, until crispy. Drain again, sprinkling with
salt and   pepper immediately. Transfer to a plate and drizzle with syrup to
taste.   

  Ronni Lundy’s Corn
Cakes with Hickoryworks Shagbark Hickory Syrup

  February 25, 2004

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal (preferably white and stone-ground; not coarse)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt.
1 large egg
1 cup whole milk
1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil plus additional for brushing
Accompaniments: butter and shagbark hickory syrup

Whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder,
and salt in a bowl. Whisk in egg, milk, and 1/2 tablespoon oil until combined.

Brush a griddle or a 12-inch (nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron)
skillet   with oil and heat over moderate heat until hot.

Using a scant 1/8 cup batter for each cake,
cook corn cakes in batches of four until bubbles appear on surface and
undersides are golden, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Turn over with a spatula and cook
until undersides are golden, about 45 seconds more. Corn cakes will be
thin.   

Transfer to a plate and keep warm, covered.   

Stir batter and brush griddle or skillet with
oil between batches.

Makes about 16 3-inch pancakes.

From Gourmet
magazine, November 2001.

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