DEERFIELD -- Maybe it's the vaporized maple sugar wafting through the dining room, but at 8:15 on a Saturday morning, the faces of the dozen or so people lined up for breakfast at Williams Farm Sugarhouse look unnaturally happy.
Women jostle toddlers on their hips. Several clusters of people appear to be young families with grandparents in tow. Not only are there no scowls or impatient sighs, but no one even looks sleepy. Instead, many of them gaze across the picnic tables to the window of the sugarhouse, where a cloud of steam rises from the sap evaporator boiling down this year's batch of liquid gold.
At the ragged edge of winter, when patches of snow lie like matted pelts beside the highway, the covered metal buckets pegged to old maples remind rural residents that there's a reason to hang in through New England's dreariest of months: sugarhouse breakfasts.
These fleeting feasts begin days after the first steam billows out of the sugarhouses in late February or early March and end when the sap stops pumping in early to mid-April. For five or six weekends, thousands of syrup connoisseurs, cabin-fever sufferers, and those nostalgic for a nearly bygone lifestyle drive to the state's few sugarhouse restaurants to spend $5 to $7 to slather syrup on pancakes, French toast, or waffles.
The restaurants range from dirt-floor shacks, where it's chilly enough that patrons dine with their coats on, to brightly lighted barns with pine paneling, cement floors, and plenty of heat. Regardless of how rustic the setting, or whether food is served buffet-, cafeteria-, or sit-down style, picnic tables are standard equipment, and dining cheek-to-jowl with strangers is often part of the experience.
Although a few of the 200 sugarhouses in Massachusetts dot the eastern and central parts of the state, most of them are clustered west of the Quabbin Reservoir, where sugar maples grow most abundantly. Of these, only 14 serve breakfast, and all but three lie along the Connecticut River Valley and in the hill towns to the west.
Tom McCrumm, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association and owner of South Face Farm Sugarhouse in Ashfield, says that while the number may not be high, Massachusetts boasts as many sugarhouse restaurants as Vermont, even though Vermont produces 10 times more syrup than the Bay State.
Some sugarhouse breakfast buffs enjoy returning to the same place year after year. Kathryn Mahony makes an annual pilgrimage from her home, about a half-hour south, to Williams Farm Sugarhouse. On a recent Saturday she and her daughter, Gabrielle, 2, shared a picnic table with friends and a friendly stranger. Mahony, who grew up in Hingham, said she likes the sense of connection with active farms.
''I want my daughter to know this tradition," she said. She's still working on getting her parents to partake. ''Every year for his birthday and for Father's Day, I get my father a quart of maple syrup. We grew up on the fake stuff."
But for the likes of Mahony's friend Suzanne Scallion of Easthampton, the sugaring season presents an annual quest for new venues. She sat across from her father, Gerry Scallion, who was visiting from Dennis.
''It's one of my favorite rituals of spring," said Suzanne Scallion, who works in Northampton as a school principal and shares tips with the custodian about which breakfast places to try next. ''I like these barns with concrete floors, the ties to working farms, the community tables."
Other tables also combined returnees and newcomers: John Lubin of Lexington, an alumnus of Deerfield Academy who returns to the area from time to time, was getting acquainted with tablemates Christine Balboni and her mother, Catherine Balboni. Catherine lives nearby, but Christine, a Coast Guard captain in Galveston, Texas, comes up once a year to help her mother with taxes, and a surgarhouse breakfast is one of the important perks. ''I had the French toast this time," Christine said. ''They don't know how to make it in Texas."
Finding sugarhouse restaurants can be an adventure in itself, rambling over scenic rural roads to tucked-away villages like Ashfield, Worthington, and Shelburne. Catching a late-winter snow squall in dazzling morning light, spotting a deer, or watching a wedge of geese soar in for the season may be among the best reasons to chase after pancakes in the Massachusetts countryside.
Other times the quest leads to a surprising change in scenery, such as the trip to the North Hadley Sugar Shack. After exiting Interstate 91 onto the stretch of Route 9 between Northampton and Amherst, where some of the world's richest farmland lies buried under malls and their parking lots, first-time visitors may wonder why they didn't just pull into that last
At 8:30 on a Saturday morning, the parking lot of the North Hadley Sugar Shack is nearly full. Martha Boisvert, mother of the two farmers who own the place, holds customers at bay until new tables open up.
''These days, with family farms struggling to exist, sugarhouse restaurants help them stay alive," she said, adding that this one churns out 500 breakfasts a day on a peak-season morning. An adjacent store sells syrup and candy, but also a more unusual offering: maple-flavored soft-serve. The sugar shack's pancakes are hearty and light with a kiss of buttermilk.
At Williams Farm, the whole-wheat pancakes manage to be both light and wheaty, and the Belgian waffles are as golden brown as a California hillside in summer. With its contours glistening with butter and syrup, the lightly toasted crust splits under the pressure of a fork, releasing a puff of warm steam. Three sausages damming a pool of syrup live up to the cliche and melt in your mouth.
Maybe some of the flavor comes from knowing the treat won't last. By early April, when the sugaring season winds down, the restaurants usually shutter until the next year. ''By that time people are all sugared out anyway," says Pam Williams, who cooks at Williams Farm Sugarhouse. ''Everyone starts thinking about gardens and yard work. So it works out perfectly."
Contact Jane Roy Brown and Bill Regan, freelance writers in Western Massachusetts, at email@example.com.