It's time to say goodbye to winter, even if winter won't say goodbye to us. To taste — literally — the first sweet stirrings of spring.
To trek to a maple sugar shack.
Dozens of sugar shacks, large and small, are hidden in the rolling hills around Buffalo. If you don't know where to start, a good choice is Moore's Maple Shack Pancake House in the hamlet of Freedom, located near Arcade in Cattaraugus County. It's open weekdays as well as weekends through April 15, and it serves breakfast all day. You can get all-you-can-eat buttermilk pancakes. And a maple sundae.
You know that advice everyone gives travelers, to go where the locals go. The locals go here. By the door, next to a sled, a sign said where the line formed. On a weekday morning, there was no line, but the place was full. Everyone knew everyone.
"That's the judge behind you. Watch out or she'll send you to jail," drawled maple patriarch Earl Moore. His family founded this place in 1967, and his voice and manner are slow and sweet as syrup.
If you do have to stand in line, talk to strangers. Everyone is happy and friendly here. Who wouldn't be?
Inside, open your eyes wide and enjoy the ephemera. On the far wall is the yoke used by Moore's grandfather's oxen. The family came here from Wales eons ago, and their mementos are everywhere, along with things neighbors have brought in.
There are sepia photos, weird old tools, boots, gowns and framed treasures, including the wedding certificate of Moore's grandmother, who had the beautiful name of Harriett Amelia Freeman.
Kids will love the scavenger list on the back of the menu. One item on the lengthy list is a telephone — "and not the one you brought in with you." Don't miss the restroom, papered with shellacked copies of the Arcade Herald from 1986, the year the pancake restaurant opened.
When ordering breakfast, don't get fancy. "Can I have blueberries/strawberries with my pancakes?" is one question in the FAQ section of that saucy menu. The answer follows: "What do you think this is, IHOP?"
Step out back to check out the unheated sugar shack, where the sap is turned into syrup. You can see the syrup boiling down and big 40-gallon barrels of the stuff.
Walking to the window, we looked out over the snow-dusted tundra to the distant woods. Moore pointed out the row of maple trees. Years ago, the family harvested the sap with horses and buckets. Now, it goes directly from the tree into a tube, like a fire hose, that carries it to the doorstep of the processing room.
A row of jars in the window shows the varying amber colors of the syrup, from the darkest to the most delicate. Choose what you like and take it home with you. A friend and I sprang $50 to split a box of eight 14-ounce cans of dark syrup.
"Cheaper than the supermarket," I beamed, doing the math.
Moore smiled happily.
"And better, too."
Where: Moore's Maple Shack Pancake House (492-3067) 10444 Galen Hill Road, Freedom.
When: Through April 15, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays and Easter Sunday.
Cost: Breakfasts start at $7, less for seniors and children, and include all-you-can-eat pancakes.
Tip: On March 17 and 18 and March 24 and 25, New York State celebrates Maple Weekend. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on both weekends, sugar shacks all over New York State hold open houses.
Hours are generally 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Syrup prices vary, but Moore's prices, topping out at $52 for a gallon jug, seem pretty typical. Pancake breakfasts, where available, start at around $5. Find participating syrup shacks and more details on the New York State Maple Weekend website.