“I’ll take the blueberry pancakes.”
“Sure! Would you like the real maple syrup with that?”
“As opposed to the fake maple syrup?” Guffaw, nudge, snicker.
Yes! Yes, yes, yes as opposed to fake maple syrup. This may come as a surprise, but there is in fact a difference between the two. Please, spare me your condescending tone because you’re unaware of this reality. I promise you. I promise you that I am choosing my words carefully based on their meanings. So when I ask you if you want real maple syrup, I do, in fact, mean that there exists both real and fake. Honestly.
That being said, I guess I should remind myself that not everyone grew up in New England. I was raised surrounded by hills and forest and long winding dirt roads. Springtime was signaled by the arrival of the large silver buckets hung on the stoic maple trees that lined our country streets. I remember counting them as we drove home from the grocery store two towns away: one, two, twenty, forty. Soon the nearby sugar shack’s chimney would start smoking and its parking lot would fill with cars. Everyone was always anxious to order off their limited breakfast menu just to taste the maple syrup that was so local it could have been from their own backyard. We craved the sugar candies that were in the shape of tiny maple leaves, always for sale in a gift shop stacked high with pamphlets detailing the process of making the syrup. In the autumn there was always one stand at the local Fall Festival that sold maple cotton candy. In the depths of December we filled bowls with freshly fallen snow and drizzled maple syrup on top.
Granted, my upbringing in the Northeast has provided me with a certain ritualistic Maple Syrup Culture. I have always had what I felt was an inherent understanding of the stuff. Even after encountering it for nearly five years, I am still appalled by the blank stares I get when I explain that Real Maple Syrup comes from a tree. Let me break it down: maple syrup is from maple trees. Table syrup, Log Cabin, Aunt Jemima’s, Eggo syrup, Pancake syrup, and whatever else is from a goddamn factory and is nothing but high fructose corn syrup and caramel color. Maybe I should explain further. Fine.
In the late winter and into the early spring, spikes are hammered into the trunks of mature sugar maple trees to release their sap. Oftentimes, multiple buckets will be hung on a single tree so as to collect the large amount of sap that is readily available. Once the buckets are filled, the sap is boiled down quickly at a high temperature to remove all of the excess liquid. Although it varies depending on the sugar content, it usually takes around 45 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup. After being boiled down, it is filtered and bottled. Not all syrup is the same, of course. Not only does the maple sugar content vary by tree, but the syrup itself becomes darker and deeper in flavor as the season goes on. Maple syrup that is lighter in flavor and color is generally Grade A. The darker amber is Grade B and often considered cooking syrup. Fun fact: Most restaurants that offer you real maple syrup are almost always offering you Grade B because it’s cheaper. Fun opinion: You should opt for Grade B anyway, both in cooking and in straight consumption, because the depth of its flavor is much better.
So what of the imitation syrups then? That sweet golden sauce with which you top your pancakes is literally nothing but high fructose corn syrup. Admittedly, there are some syrups that are labeled “maple-flavored” and supposedly those have some actual maple in them. However, most of what you see on grocery store shelves and for no charge in restaurants is good old HFCS. Its “maple” flavor actually comes from Fenugreek seeds, but I promise there are no health benefits this time. That’s it! No fascinating homegrown process here.
And in case you hadn’t guessed, maple syrup is expensive. There aren’t a whole lot of places that are capable of producing it and as the seasons have been pretty screwed up the past few years, sugaring has been pretty difficult. It’s only going to get more expensive from here, folks. So please, spare me the looks of horror when I tell you there’s an extra charge. If you don’t get it, I really won’t be affected. But if you think you can’t taste the difference, your palette is flat out broken.