I served French toast to my parents one chilly morning a few years ago, and then carried out to the table a jar of real Maine maple syrup as if it were a priceless vintage wine.

I had paid $28 for this quart of syrup from a small Maine farm, and it had to last me until the next sugaring season. (I am not made of money.) My father likes to drown his food in syrup, and a vision flashed before my eyes of a virtual waterfall of dollar bills, instead of syrup, falling out of the glass jar. So I offered him a tablespoon and gently suggested that we dole out the syrup one spoonful at a time.

I am a bad daug818987_syrup2hter and a worse hostess. In retrospect, I should have let my father use the whole quart if he wanted to. He has supported my decisions all my life and gotten me out of plenty of jams, so I owe him. Instead, I watched him pour less syrup than I knew he really wanted, making for an awkward moment in maple syrup etiquette.

Yes, maple syrup etiquette – something to consider whether we’re sharing a platter of pancakes with friends or eating stuffed French toast at a diner. Is it OK to mete out the real syrup in small containers like it’s liquid gold, or should you put the whole bottle on the table and let your guests have at it? Is it copacetic for a restaurant to tack a surcharge of a dollar or two onto the bill for discriminating palates who want the good stuff, while leaving the Aunt Jemima and other corn syrup-based imposters for the riffraff? And if you have to pay extra for pure Maine syrup, should a restaurant portion it out generously, or is it all right to be a little stingy since real syrup costs as much as $60 a gallon?

A friend told me she knows of a guy who taps maple trees in the local cemetery. Now there’s a syrup etiquette conundrum: Do you tell the person you sell it to where the syrup came from? “Oh, the sap for that bottle came from Row DD, Plot 46, the final resting place of Mrs. Butterworth, who was a big fan of Belgian waffles.”

I surveyed friends and restaurant owners to see how they handle these, um, sticky situations.


Pat Washburn lives in Portland, but her parents were both from Vermont, so she was “raised with strict notions about maple syrup.”

“There is no such thing as fake maple syrup that is worthy of being served to guests,” Washburn said. “If someone is a guest, you serve them the real stuff, preferably made by a blood relative.”

John Ewing, a semi-retired Press Herald photographer, and his wife also serve the real thing at their home in Portland, and keep an extra container in the pantry, just in case. Guests are welcome to be as generous with their pours as they’d like. “I think the waffles are just a vehicle to carry as much syrup as they possibly can,” Ewing said.

PORTLAND, ME - MARCH 13: A customer pours pure Grade A maple syrup on her pancake at the Miss Portland Diner. (Photo by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer)

A customer pours pure Grade A maple syrup on her pancake at the Miss Portland Diner.  Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

In my defense of my maple syrup miserliness, it’s about more than money. I hate to see the syrup go to waste. My eager dad pours more than he can possibly eat, and when the pancakes are gone, a big pool of syrup remains.

Most Americans do consider “the spectre of price,” as Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham reported last year after surveying 1,000 adults about their maple syrup preferences. Just 27 percent preferred real syrup, while 62 percent preferred Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth or Log Cabin. Mrs. Butterworth costs about $8 a gallon at Wal-Mart, Ingraham noted. Log Cabin is even cheaper – just under $6.

Dave Mallari, owner of The Sinful Kitchen, a brunch restaurant on Brighton Avenue, keeps the “fake” syrup on hand for people who prefer it. But he also offers “personal bottles” of McLure Farms real maple syrup for $2 (it’s from New Hampshire, but that’s where he gets the best deal and the best customer service, he says). Yes, it’s a surcharge, but Mallari feels the way in which it’s presented softens the blow.


“The reason we offer the personal bottles is to kind of ease the pain of the purchase for the consumer, since they can take home whatever is left over,” he said. “When we first opened, we would buy a gallon and then put it in a little pitcher for the customer. They would either use it all, or in most cases only use a little and we would have to throw the rest out. That was a lot of money going into the trash.”

To avoid the syrup tax at restaurants, Ewing carries his own maple syrup with him when he travels, in a half-pint bottle he can stick in his pocket. An avid fly fishermen, he didn’t like walking into a restaurant in rural Maine only to find Mrs. Butterworth would be his dining companion – or that he would have to pay extra for real syrup.

Something is missing in this scene.

Something is missing in this stack.  Shutterstock.com photo

“I guess I understand why they do it,” he said. “It’s more expensive. It just seems to me that if you’re having pancakes in Maine you ought to have real syrup with it.”

Ewing said he usually makes a joke about bringing his own when the server comes over to take his order. No one has ever complained.

The Miss Portland Diner on Marginal Way uses only real syrup, but serves it in a 3-ounce container, which owner Tom Manning says is “more than enough for a serving.” If a customer wants more, the diner charges them $1.50. They seldom get such requests, Manning said.

The diner uses award-winning syrup from Hilltop Boilers. Manning estimates that using real syrup sets him back $400 to $500 a week, but he says it’s worth it because he thinks a Maine diner should serve Maine syrup. He does have a few regulars who prefer the imitation syrup, so he keeps a bottle on hand for them – but he hides it. “I make my waitresses keep that out back,” he said.

Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell, the owners of Palace Diner in Biddeford, have been on both sides of the counter. They were sick of going out to breakfast and ordering pancakes or waffles, only to be told they had to pay an extra $1.50 for syrup served in a tiny ramekin. “That’s nickel and diming, and that’s not the spirit with which we approach the service industry,” Conley said.

They decided when they opened their own diner they would be “a little more generous than that.” They believe they are the only restaurant in the region, other than Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill, N.H., that offers its customers unlimited real maple syrup with their flapjacks or challah French toast.

Conley admits he sees dollar signs when customers use too much syrup, but “That person really appreciates that they get to do that,” he said, “and that person is going to come back. It makes people happy, and that’s the important thing.”

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