How passionate am I about maple syrup? I would describe it as similar to how the French feel about wine, to how Middle Easterners feel about hummus, or how locavores feel about eating locally. Born in Canada, I’m proud and fiercely passionate about maple syrup.
Do I care if you like maple syrup? No. However, I DO care about you knowing what maple syrup is, and what it is not. I care about maple syrup’s “brand” as a natural product, and I don’t like the way so many restaurants are sullying its good name.
How are they doing that? Well, by serving “maple-flavored syrup,” “pancake syrup,” – basically corn syrup with a bunch of additives and little to no maple syrup, and passing it off as “real maple syrup,” “old fashioned maple syrup,” and “standard, regular old maple.” These are actual quotes from Austin restaurant employees.
What most restaurants actually serve is some variation of America’s favorite syrup — Aunt Jemima. If you go to many restaurants these days, they’ll serve you an Aunt Jemima-like product they order from a huge distributor like Sysco.
What’s in it? Here’s a sample label: Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Cellulose Gum, Caramel Color, Salt, sodium Benzoate, Sorbic Acid, Artificial and Natural Flavors, Sodium Hexametaphosphate.
But here’s the deal – many of you grew up on the corn syrup stuff, and it brings back those fond memories of Sunday morning pancakes as a special treat. So you really like it. In fact, many people raised on corn syrup don’t like the taste of maple syrup. And while that makes me kind of sad, I understand. In fact, my brother has always liked Aunt Jemima and the like better than maple. My mom used to have to stock both.
I’m not above bringing my own maple syrup to a restaurant if I have a hankering for pancakes, just so I’m not disappointed. I’ve gone on like this for years, grumbling curmudgeonly about the sad fate of maple syrup in our society, when I came to the final straw.
Last fall, I was visiting a local restaurant that had invited me and Adam to taste some new menu items. The owner was kind enough to meet us and answer some of our questions while we ate. Early in the meal, I took notice that according to their menu where it is noted on a handful of items, they serve “Hudson Valley Maple Syrup.” I was surprised that this particular establishment served maple syrup – since I know it is expensive – and immediately lauded the owner for their commitment to quality. He thanked me.
Later, when my dish came with a side of this “Hudson Valley Maple Syrup,” the first bite sent my taste buds into confusion. I knew immediately that this was NOT maple syrup. All I could muster was one word: “no.” Just “no.”
When I regained my composure, I looked him in the eye and said, “This is not maple syrup.” He admitted that it was a 60/40 blend of maple syrup. A blend? I had never heard of such a thing and was even more chagrined to think that anyone would mix pure maple syrup with something else.
A full two months after directly sharing my concerns with the owner and their PR person about this via e-mail, the menu remains the same. When I called as part of my Austin Maple Syrup Restaurant Survey, the hostess told me they serve pure maple syrup. After questioning her to make sure it is real maple, she assured me that it is. I have to wonder: did they decide to invest in maple syrup and keep their menus the same? Or, are they still serving the “blend” and just haven’t educated their staff or customers about this deliberately untrue claim?
How one restaurant chooses to do business isn’t what this blog post is about.
However, I think it illustrates that pure maple syrup means something in our society. Whoever wrote that menu included “Hudson Valley Maple Syrup” instead of “Pancake Syrup” or leaving the syrup out of the description entirely because maple syrup is a high quality, expensive product and they want their customers to read the menu and feel that what they are eating is special.
The stuff they — and many other restaurants serve — is maple-flavored corn syrup. The cheap, fake, stuff. You can taste the difference no matter which type of syrup you prefer.
In a future post, I will share with you the results of my telephone survey of about 50 restaurants throughout Austin that serve breakfast and brunch. I was amazed at the level of confusion among those I spoke to about what kind of syrup they serve because most people don’t ask. Many assumed they served maple until I asked more questions and they realized that what they serve is not the real stuff.
In the end, the majority of restaurants I called — 22 in total — serve only corn syrup. Sixteen local restaurants serve only pure maple. And seven restaurants serve both — with four out of the seven charging extra for the maple option (something I’m totally ok with — the real stuff is more expensive).
Leading up to this post on local Austin restaurants’ syrup offerings, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about the history, production, and labeling of maple syrup.
In the end, I’d love to make a small difference in how readers think about the syrup they are being served and become savvy syrup consumers. I plan to keep my list of restaurants and their maple syrup options updated, and hope that more of the corn-syrup only establishments will offer diners the option of real maple syrup.
Thank you for joining me on this syrupy journey.
- The Rise and Fall of Maple: history, other syrups, government regulation, grades, Vermont vs. McDonalds
- Maple Pride: harvest, regional pride, tourism, environment, health
- The Envelope Please….Introducing the Austin Maple Syrup Guide