The teenage cashier looked at me a little funny, but the lady behind me didn’t say a word. I had one box of pancake mix and three different bottles of syrup. Three, not four, because I jumped out of line to put one back.
“I didn’t need the last one,” I announced. “I just needed two with the corn syrup.”
The lady behind me was pushing a cart overflowing with bottled water, Mountain Dew and a dazzling array of corn chips.
If I wanted to bathe in maple syrup — or maple-flavored syrup — that was fine by her. To each his own. She had Fritos and three different kinds of Doritos. Who was she to judge?
The woman just nodded and smiled while the weary cashier listlessly scanned my bottles and then gave me the total. I imagined all she wanted out of me was to pay by card and take my breakfast food elsewhere.
Working a register at a grocery store during a pandemic had to be pretty miserable. Everybody who comes through is a little crazy.
Bottom of the bottle
My month of learning about maple syrup had come to a close. The local red maples had begun to bud, ending sugaring operations at least in this part of the state, and then the country had joined a worldwide health emergency.
Like everyone else, I’d spent too much time worrying and fretting on social media instead of digging further into the process of making syrup, but I’d still managed to work in a little more time with Paul Ronk at his farm in Lincoln County.
I’d messaged back and forth with Chad Trent at Hill n’ Hollow Farm, in Griffithsville.
He’d told me about some of the interesting things going on with his syrup operation, including making syrup from shagbark hickory bark.
“It has a smoky hickory flavor and makes a great vegetable, pork or fish glaze,” he said.
The process was different than boiling down sap to make syrup. I promised to get up there to see that, at some point.
Maple sugar in W.Va.
I’d also spoken with Mike Rechlin through the West Virginia Maple Syrup Producers Association.
Rechlin wrote “Maple Syrup: An Introduction to the Science of a Forest Treasure,” a book about tree management and maple syrup making. We talked over the phone as he drove through Randolph County.
Maple syrup, he explained, wasn’t just a northern thing that had migrated south to West Virginia, but had been part of rural America for generations until it mostly died out in the first decade or two of the 20th century.
Like Ronk, Rechlin pointed out West Virginia had many more maple trees than Vermont — and they were the right kind for syrup.
“The sugar maple is the state tree,” he said.
West Virginia just doesn’t have the harvesting infrastructure to tap them all, among other things.
“But we’re seeing a resurgence,” he said. “We’ve got everything from families tapping four or five trees in their yard to make syrup for themselves to growing commercial operations.”
Rechlin said when he started with the association, there were about 20 members making syrup. Now, there are more than 50.
There are even more people making syrup who aren’t part of the association, he added.
Commercial operations in West Virginia are small. Most of the syrup produced in the state, Rechlin said, is sold in state, generally at farmers markets and at area fairs and festivals.
“But that’s not a bad thing,” he told me. “It gets bought up.”
Some syrup makes its way into Virginia and Maryland, he said, but local maple syrup isn’t likely to be a serious competition to big northern producers, including Canada.
West Virginia commercial maple syrup sellers were looking at rebranding local syrup as Appalachian syrup. West Virginia maple syrup looked and tasted different than the kind found up north, anyway.
West Virginia syrup is darker, which Rechlin said doesn’t bother Southerners, who are used to eating molasses and sorghum. It has a bolder, more robust flavor.
“We think our syrup tastes better,” he added with a laugh. “But people in Vermont might disagree.”
Rubber meets road, fork meets pancake
I wondered about that and figured there was really only one way to find out, so I bought a couple of bottles of syrup. I bought two bottles of West Virginia-made syrup, a bottle of pure maple syrup produced outside the state and two bottles of the maple-flavored syrup.
I got a bottle of store-brand syrup from Kroger and a small bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s Original syrup.
I made a big stack of pancakes and then sampled each bottle. None of this was scientific, and all of it was based purely on my observations.
Of the syrups I tried, the West Virginia syrups had the boldest, best maple flavor. They were rich and complex and had a slightly different texture than I expected.
I liked that a lot.
What I didn’t like was that the real maple syrup quickly soaked into the pancakes like water poured over a sponge.
I knew this would happen. I’ve had maple syrup before. I expected it, but that didn’t mean that I liked it. I was used to the syrup slowly seeping into my pancakes, how corn syrup tends to behave.
That’s what I’m used to. I buy the cheap stuff, always have. Real maple syrup has always been a luxury, like Swiss cheese, red meat and imported beer.
Oddly enough, the lighter colored northern syrup didn’t drain into the pancake right away and seemed thicker, but the maple flavor was lighter, buried beneath the sweetness.
I wouldn’t turn it away, of course.
In a pinch, I’ve been known to pour honey or light corn syrup on pancakes (also chocolate syrup and, once or twice, marshmallow fluff), but I liked the West Virginia syrup much better.
Unfortunately, my favorite was Mrs. Butterworth’s, which had a solid maple flavor, pooled on top of the pancakes and seemed to have just the right sweetness.
I realize comparing flavored corn syrup to actual maple syrup is kind of like comparing store brand flavored water to fresh squeezed orange juice, but I like what I like, I guess.
The store brand flavored syrup was fine. It was nothing to write home about. It was what I was used to, and what I’d probably end up buying again.
You can’t take me anywhere, but just the same, through this month, I’d come to believe there could be some kind of future for maple syrup in West Virginia.
Rechlin told me more people were making syrup. Sure, so far, mostly local people were buying it up, but that didn’t mean others might not. It seemed likely it could make a dent in the maple market, even if it would never dominate.
You don’t have to dominate something to make a living, I suppose.
Maple syrup was never going to replace coal — not in a million years. It was never going to compete with coal. But I believed, like Paul Ronk, that making maple syrup pointed to a way of doing things that was completely relevant, maybe even desirable to the 21st century.
Farms like the Ronk Family Farm sold eggs, fresh produce and made maple syrup. Syrup was just the latest thing. They’d only been doing it for a few years, but the lesson seemed to be that the way to make a living in West Virginia was to just do a bunch of different things.