Saturday morning pancake breakfasts have long been a staple at the Marsik residence.
Frank Marsik rises early to mix the batter, flip the flapjacks and fill the house with glorious aromas.
But while he’s been making these storied breakfasts for roughly two decades, they’ve never tasted quite as good as they have the past five years. And it has nothing to do with the pancakes, but rather what is poured over them.
Marsik, lecturer IV in climate and space sciences and engineering in the College of Engineering, and his wife began collecting sap and making their own maple syrup in 2018. The couple has found the process can be painstaking and challenging at times but also rewarding and enriching, and not just for what it does for the pancakes.
“It’s a fun operation. We’ve used it a little bit to teach our daughters about nature,” said Marsik, who has 18- and 16-year-old daughters with his wife, Theresa. “We’ve always appreciated and valued local production.”
Marsik grew up in Corunna, and his wife is from the Upper Peninsula, so their home west of Ann Arbor and south of Dexter pays homage to their desire to raise their family in a small town but also near work and city conveniences.
Theresa Marsik is a stormwater engineer for Washtenaw County Water Resources and first got the idea of taking the family’s pancake tradition to another level.
“One of her colleagues has quite a bit of land and taps a lot of trees, and he was telling her about the process and what he did,” Frank Marsik said. “So we said, ‘Well, let’s give it a try.’”
While Theresa Marsik’s colleague had ample trees to choose from, the Marsiks have just one sugar maple in their yard. But since their operation was not planned to be a commercial one like her colleague’s, they secured the necessary equipment and tapped the tree for the first time to collect sap in the winter of 2018.
They’ve learned that the window of collection is not necessarily seasonal but more based on “the observed diurnal range of temperatures,” Frank Marsik said.
“Sap collection basically starts when we know we will be expecting a series of days with overnight low temperatures in the 20s and afternoon highs in the 40s,” he said. “There have been some years for which we never really hit that range consistently, and so the volume of sap collected was pretty low.”
While Theresa Marsik’s engineering background proved valuable in the collection setup, her husband’s meteorological experience pays off when figuring out when to tap. As a young student, Frank Marsik said he was always interested in finding out if school was going to be canceled because of inclement weather, and that curiosity soon morphed into wanting to know not simply if, but why.
He sold Christmas cards in his Corunna neighborhood and used the money to buy a tiny weather station for his bedroom. He also had a small transistor radio and was fascinated that he could listen to major league baseball games from across the country on it. He came to U-M in 1980 to combine his passion for meteorology and broadcasting, eventually spending seven years as a television meteorologist in Wisconsin and Flint.
As it turns out, the weather this year has produced a nice bounty, with the tree donating approximately 50 gallons of sap thus far.
After the sap seeps into plastic jugs at the base of the tree, it is transferred to pots for boiling, either over a fire pit in the yard or on a burner on the side of an outdoor grill. That must be done within seven days of collection or the sugar in the sap will break down.
Since the sap is mostly water, much of the water must be boiled away to leave behind the syrup. Thus, once the sap is boiling, it must be monitored, either to add more sap to the pot or to remove it from the heat once the boiling point of sap has been reached.
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From there, the Marsiks pour the syrup into jars that are sealed, and stored for later consumption. When the family first started making syrup, they were hesitant to completely let go of the store-bought syrup they had grown accustomed to, largely because they did not want to run the risk of exhausting their supply of homemade syrup.
“Once we realized we weren’t in danger of that, we’ve primarily switched over to the homemade because it’s better,” Marsik said. “The homemade is a little bit thinner, so you have to be careful because it’ll come out pretty quickly.”
The Marsiks are blessed with a particularly sugary tree. The rule of thumb is it takes about 40 gallons of sap to generate one gallon of maple syrup, but the Marsiks this year had a ratio of about half that.
The resulting syrup will serve the family’s needs for the coming year, and while the pancake tradition is important, they also realize preserving the tree is equally vital. They skipped collecting sap last season to give it a rest.
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
I have always had a split appointment as a research scientist and lecturer, and it can be challenging to do both well. One day, a colleague sat me down and said that they wanted to share an observation with me. They said, “When you talk about your research, you can really tell that you enjoy it. When you talk about your teaching, your eyes light up.” That’s all that I needed to hear, as my career has transitioned to mostly educational roles ever since.
What can’t you live without?
A morning skim latte with a chocolate chip cookie, music, family board-game nights.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
The Diag. For me, it really is the melting pot of campus and the place where I have so many fond memories that span the spectrum of emotions. I don’t get down there much anymore, given that I work on North Campus. However, I wandered through the Diag after the mass snowball fight in January, and there was nothing but pure joy in the air. A flood of memories came rushing back that night.
What inspires you?
A few years ago, I started holding some of my office hours in the campus dining halls, thanks to a suggestion from a colleague. It is amazing how the faculty-student barriers seem to fall away in that setting. Over dinner, the students have shared some pretty potent stories about the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. Without a doubt, their stories have inspired me in how I approach my teaching and mentoring.
What are you currently reading?
“Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition” by Paul Watson.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Well, it takes a village, so I am not sure I can name just one person. I grew up in an agricultural area, and I quickly learned the role that the weather played in people’s lives and livelihoods. My grandparents, and my parents, would spend endless hours in their sizable vegetable gardens, and working beside them I came to appreciate how the fate of our annual harvests were tied to the temperatures and rainfall amounts that we experienced. Having navigated through a career as a broadcast meteorologist, then research scientist, and now mainly a lecturer, my latter career has been greatly influenced by Perry Samson, my Ph.D. adviser. Perry was one of the first people I remember actively trying to find solutions to the inequities in education experienced by students of different backgrounds and identity groups. His work has certainly inspired the path that I am now on.
Mariamercedes Ibarra-Rivera Corsetti
Marsik Family you must touch base and compare notes with Stewart and Saltini Semerari both at U-M LSA Anthropology, for this shared interest and fun yearly tradition!
Thanks for all you do for your students, Frank!