New Yorkers may remember back in January, 2009 (and in ’05, ’06, ’07 and ’08), there was this mystery plaguing our city. The watercoolers in Midtown offices were buzzing with workers asking the question, “Why the hell does our city smell like maple syrup?” Even our ridiculously rich mayor couldn’t figure out what was going on. Just like one may walk in the city on a hot summer day and smell wafts of trash cooking on the sidewalk mixed with sauteed onions and garlic, and possibly a hint of sidewalk vendor smoke, during this week you really smelled syrup. In fact, Gothamist blog created an awesome Google Map showing where the majority of calls and e-mails about this phenomenon came from during that time (using oh-so-cute mini Mrs. Butterworth images to pinpoint them on the map). Also noted, was the maple syrup mystery made its way on to a segment of 30 Rock.
After a lot of investigating, it was discovered that the smell that took over the city was from a North Bergen, New Jersey (god, we really DO love Jersey, we swear) factory that produces “food flavors” (I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit) and the culprit of the smell was from the processing of fenugreek seeds. Many of you may use fenugreek in your cooking — most commonly in cooking Indian food. But, did you know, fenugreek seeds are also one of the main ingredients used to flavor fake maple syrups (besides nasty things like high fructose corn syrup and sodium hexametaphate, a sequestering agent most commonly found in soap and photography products)? We’re not not joking here. Yup, you learn something new every day, huh? The maple syrup smell that overtook NYC was not from an actual tree, but from a processing plant across the river. Sigh.
This summer we took a lovely roadtrip to Quebec City for a few days. Driving lazily through New York State, Vermont, and some of Canada was not only relaxing but helped us see some beautiful parts of the great Northeast. We found ourselves at a Vermont Maple Syrup Shack and picked some up. Later on in our trip, we discovered how crazy the Quebecois are for their own maple syrup. So, yet again, we bought some Canadian Maple Syrup, curious what the flavor difference between this and the Vermont kind would be like. Growing up on Aunt Jemima, I figured it was a worthwhile experiment to do another blind taste test (remember our Vodka tasting?) of fake versus real maple syrup. Could we spot the fake? Would we really, really like the real stuff? Would I, GASP!, prefer high fructose corn syrup and refined fenugreek seeds to real sap from an actual tree?
I was actually nervous to eff this one up. Jonny, on the other hand had less to lose — his palate isn’t as trained to spot the fake as mine. He has only had the pleasure of getting to know pancakes as a normal weekend breakfast for the five years he’s been living here in the States. In fact, one of the first interactions he had with my mother (now his mother-in-law) was when he sat down for his first breakfast with the family and mom asked Jonny if he wanted syrup with his pancakes. Without even waiting for an answer (and in typical “Italian-American Mama” fashion) she proceeded to give a death grip squeeze to the plastic Aunt Jemima bottle, dousing his silver dollar Bisquick beauties in the fake stuff. Politely, he changed his side-to-side head-shake to an up-and-down nod saying, “Well, yes. Thank you!”. These days, he knows how to speak up to the Italian-American Mama…. it takes some practice.
So, last night we did a blind taste-test of four kinds of syrup. On the block were two American “fake” favorites: Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth. On the “real” side were the Vermont “Dark Amber” style syrup and the Canadian Medium 100% maple syrup. Jonny was blindfolded first and I wrote down his comments. then we switched places. Here are some of the results of our taste test:
#1: TASTE TEST RESULTS FOR AUNT JEMIMA
- “Taste like Sunday morning at Rosie’s” (that’s my mom – his mother-in-law.)
- “Not actually that bad on the whole.”
- “Caramel backnote, very sweet, burnt-flavor.”
- “Less chemical-tasting than #1 (later to find out was Mrs. Butterworth’s) but with an aftertaste of corn syrup.”
- “Buttery, thick and, I’m going to regret this, but I kinda like it.” (Probably because this is the crap I was brought up on!)
Jonny’s Guess: Aunt Jemima – CORRECT (+1 for Jonny)
Amy’s Guess: Mrs. Butterworth’s – INCORRECT (0 for Amy)
#2: TASTE TEST RESULTS FOR MRS. BUTTERWORTH
- “Powerful nose!” (LOL – you’d think he was at a wine tasting).
- “Very sweet, more flavor than #1 (which was Aunt Jemima), more caramel flavored in the mouth.”
- “Tastes darker and thicker than some of the others – not loving this one.”
- “Very sweet, very familiar.”
- “Gluey, sticky and thick.”
- “Sugar and caramel in flavor.”
Jonny’s Guess: Vermont Dark Amber Maple Syrup (Oh boy!) – INCORRECT (0 points for Jonny)
Amy’s Guess: Aunt Jemima (at least I knew it was fake!) – INCORRECT (0 points again for Amy)
#3: TASTE TEST RESULTS FOR VERMONT DARK AMBER REAL MAPLE SYRUP
- “Eww! Very Sugary and sweet.”
- “Tastes like the bottom of a teacup.”
- “I don’t like it at all – you need to rely on good pancakes to save that!” (Oh Jonny, you really are going to be embarrassed when you find out that you royally messed up on this one!)
- “More natural than the first one (Mrs. Butterworth).”
- “Less fake sweet and more natural in flavor.”
- “Almost floral in smell – this one is my favorite.”
Jonny’s Guess: Mrs. Butterworth – INCORRECT (0 points for Jonny)
Amy’s Guess: Vermont Dark Amber Maple Syrup – CORRECT (1 point for Amy)
#4: TASTE TEST RESULTS FOR CANADIAN MEDIUM MAPLE SYRUP
- “Much thinner than the others, less viscous.”
- “I really like this.”
- “No caramel flavor, cleaner in the mouth and very woody – like freshly cut pine.”
- “Stronger and sweeter than #2 (the Vermont Maple).”
- “Stronger flavor and thinner than 1 & 3 (the two fakes).”
- “Very nice.”
Jonny’s Guess: Canadian Medium Maple Syrup – CORRECT (1 point for Jonny)
Amy’s Guess: Canadian Medium Maple Syrup – CORRECT (1 point for Amy)
Well, this experiment proved to be an interesting one. I grew up with fake maple syrup and I could spot it from a mile away, unlike Jonny. I was actually disappointed in myself for not nailing the Aunt Jemima test — that was the household favorite back in the day. One thing that is for sure though, Jonny and I both preferred the real maple syrup. I enjoyed the Vermont Maple best and Jonny loved the Canadian. The grades of the maple syrup may have made it harder to really do a side-by-side test of the two real ones. Either way, it was obvious to me that there is a major difference in the texture, flavor and aftertaste of real maple syrup versus fake. It is worth the cost to get the real deal. A little goes a long way! And why would anyone want to put those chemicals in their bodies just to save $9?
Some food for thought – fake maple syrup costs about $28 per gallon to produce where real maple syrup typically sells for around $100 per gallon. The fake stuff is quick, cheap and easy to make. Why tap a tree for sap when you can make a whole fake bunch of it in something that resembles an oil refinery?
Although Jonny made a huge boo-boo by thinking Vermont Maple syrup was Mrs. Butterworth’s, he doesn’t have the years of expertise that I do. He’s actually eaten more fake syrup while living in American than real. I’d like to say he was at a disadvantage, but I’d encourage you all to seek out some real maple syrup and think twice about what’s in that $1.89 version of “table syrup” you may have been eating for years.
Next, we’re on the hunt for real NY State Maple syrup! Check out this site if you’re interested too.