THURMONT -- From the Catoctin Mountains in Frederick County comes this message: Forget Vermont.
Maryland isn't renowned for producing syrup, but the folks who trekked here yesterday for a celebration of the state's sticky stuff were acting as if they were in a new maple heaven.
Seminars on how sap is extracted from maple trees drew hordes of visitors, and the lines for pancakes poured out the door.
"I've been a big fan of maple products for a long, long time," offered one visitor, Crystal Testerman of Bel Air. "I never thought a lot about Maryland being a maple state."
The Maple Syrup Heritage Festival, in its 29th year, was held at Cunningham Falls State Park, north of Frederick. Organizers say the event is an outdoor cure to wintry ennui, and an opportunity to learn about where a breakfast-table mainstay comes from.
Cloudless skies drew a crowd of 1,500 to the event, which continues today and next weekend. Yesterday's temperatures were also near-perfect for demonstrating how syrup is produced.
Syrup turns out best when a night is chilly and the next day is sunny and a bit warmer.
Richard Doney, the Maryland ranger who led yesterday's seminars, said recent winters have been too mild, hurting the state's commercial syrup industry -- located mostly in Allegany and Garrett counties -- and dropping the state further behind the nation's production leader, Vermont.
Maryland is 13th in the country in maple-syrup production.
If there was any inferiority complex, though, it hardly dampened Doney's enthusiasm as he spoke while standing over two enormous kettles of boiling sap. He simultaneously played the roles of chemistry professor and lumberjack.
"Most of your sap is 98 percent water," Doney said, stressing that folks would be cruelly surprised if they tapped a tree and immediately drizzled what they extracted over French toast. "It's just like what comes out of your kitchen sink."
Sap must be boiled for up to eight hours, a process that leaves the sweeter, thicker substance. Many commercial table syrups include only a small percentage of pure maple syrup. They contain mostly corn syrup.
Slightly more than $4,000 was raised yesterday from entrance fees and concessions sales. The money goes to the Friends of Cunningham State Park, a nonprofit organization that supplements the park budget and helps buy equipment. The group has donated $38,000 to the park since 1995.
Folks flocked to the festival for a variety of reasons.
James Wilson of Glenwood in Howard County was hoping to find a new type of sweetener for his herbal tea.
Andrea Giberson, who drove an hour-and-a-half from Falls Church, Va., said she "likes the kids to see that all food doesn't come from a grocery store."
And then there were the hot cakes.
Visitors consumed almost 2,000 pancakes yesterday. They were sweetened with Vermont syrup, because Maryland syrup didn't come in single-serving bottles.
That did not deter David Eberly, 62, of Gaithersburg, who brushed aside all talk of Vermont's claim to syrup fame, as he wolfed down a trio of pancakes.
"Vermont secretly puts Maryland maple syrup in theirs to make it sweeter," he said.
"It's a story I heard."
Pub Date: 3/14/99