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Labun Jordan: Faux Food

This June I rode my bike with a group of friends from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh. We followed first a tow path and then a rail trail, out of downtown D.C., through Maryland and West Virginia, across the Mason Dixon line and the continental divide, then into the industrial landscape of Pittsburgh. The route was lined with carpets of bluebells, thickets of rhododendron, old lock houses, palisades, waterfalls and an alarming amount of fake maple syrup.

Now, I never expected that a hostel in West Virginia that caters to folks looking for inexpensive lodging on a long bicycle trek would serve real maple syrup with the morning waffles. But was faux maple the best alternative? And for the French Toast in Maryland, the pancakes in Pennsylvania... well, everyone had chosen the same bad solution to a serious maple syrup deficit.

I guess as part of a breakfast eating public that believes waffles, pancakes, and French Toast must come with maple syrup - a rule so unbreakable that we’ll invoke it even when the syrup is maple in name only – I share the blame.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. These breakfast foods offer a culinary blank slate onto which you could drizzle all sorts of toppings. Like honey. Honey has the flavor of the local flowers, lovely by itself or you could get fancy by adding a little citrus - or perhaps cream. You could caramelize the cream a bit or pour it over a pile of fresh fruit. Fruit, too, cooks up into perfectly good sauces. Like peaches. With honey. And cream. 

The list goes on, I had many days of biking to think about it and to contemplate whether - given the maple situation - I should become a new Johnny Appleseed, biking along with a cartful of maple syrup nips to parcel out wherever I roamed. Maybe I’d cross paths with a Maryland native doing the same with spice tins filled with Old Bay, or someone from Lafayette hauling Tabasco Sauce to help us fend off bland food.

I now believe this fake syrup issue may well represent a threat to cuisine, culture, and basically civilization.

In Vermont, it makes sense to have waffles with maple syrup, that’s a delicious local tradition. Anyone, anywhere, with access to the real stuff can have their own taste of this tradition, and I’d encourage that. But it doesn’t follow that serving waffles equals serving something only called maple syrup. That’s the logic of a chain restaurant, where the most important thing is that the menu be the same from one place to another. It’s a sameness that followed us even while we abandoned the Interstate to explore and experience something new.

Well, give me molasses, then. Gravy. Dump nacho toppings on my waffle, if you must - because it’s a slippery slope from fake maple syrup to a world of foods that are consistent but soul-less. Give me anything that’s different – and I promise I won’t complain.

Helen Labun has worked in Vermont nonprofits addressing issues in rural economic development. Today, she is Executive Director of the Vermont Fresh Network, connecting chefs to Vermont farmers in support of the local food economy.
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