The West has introduced me to new foods such as jicama, prickly pears, mesquite flour ... and the wonderful world of fresh roasted chilis. They are delicious. However, I would be remiss if I didn't share some sweet memories of New York State and a native food that your pancakes cry out for. Not having some of this in the cupboard sometimes makes me a little homesick. No ... not enough to endure the cold and snow, but maple syrup is one of my favorite treats. Although real syrup is available in the grocery store, it's made in Northwest and not the Northeast. I'm not talking about the row of corn syrup products on the shelf, but bona fide maple syrup. Amber ... maple golden ... delicious ... sweetness.
If you were a kid back in the 60s or earlier, the sight of tin roof covered buckets on sugar maples was a common during February in Western New York. I remember a local family who borrowed our trees to collect the thin, clear sap that would eventually turn into sweet amber syrup. A big tractor and farm wagon would pull up to the houses in the neighborhood (a rural dairy farming neighborhood) loaded with buckets and taps or spiles. A mallet quickly drove the metal spile into the tree and bucket would then be hung to collect a steady drip of maple sap. Big maples usually had two or three buckets dangling from their trunks. Sap was collected every day and poured into old-fashioned metal milk cans. It was back-breaking work for 4-6 weeks. That was just the beginning. The boiling off process takes hours and constant care before it's ready for pancakes.
Real maple syrup requires an average of 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. You can immediately see why the stuff is so expensive. American Indians were the first to discover syrup making and it's one of the few agricultural practices indigenous to America rather than Europe. That in itself makes it special. A true American-made product. Even though technology has significantly improved over hundreds of years, the process remains labor intensive. The weather also has to cooperate - above freezing during the day and below 32 degrees at night. Chancy business in the Northeast. Weather there is a harsh taskmaster, and sap quantities are excruciatingly linked to the weather.
There are so many wonderful maple products: syrup, sugar, candy (traditional maple leaf shape, please), and my all-time favorite, maple cream. Without a doubt, the best topping for ice cream, yes better than even chocolate. I know that's a dangerous statement, but that's how I'm calling it.
A favorite jaunt in the bleak mid-winter of WNY was a trip or two to Cartwright's Maple Tree Inn in Short Tract. Not only do they serve the best buckwheat pancakes, but the syrup is made downstairs. The sugar bush (the stand of trees used for sap collection) covers the rolling hills around the sprawling restaurant and syrup factory. Rather than buckets, plastic tubing is run from tree to tree and emptied into a collection vat. They use a reverse osmosis technology which shortens the time from sap to syrup. They've been in this sweet business for over 50 years. We have many fond memories of friends around a long table with stacks of steaming pancakes, plates of eggs, bacon, and sausage. Of course, no visit was complete for me without the purchase of a jar of maple cream. Unfortunately, the restaurant is closed when our annual trip to New York rolls around, but I manage to make a trip to Lantz's Bulk Food store in Warsaw. They always stock plenty of maple products, and I leave room in the suitcase to stash my purchase of a couple of maple items along with some New Hope Mills pancake mix (another NY tradition).
If you've been lulled into complacency with colored corn syrup, you have no idea what you're missing. I recommend you get a hold of the real stuff and put that over your waffles. It's OK if it's from the Northwest, but New York syrup is still the best. (I know I'll hear from Canadians on this one.) Let it run willy-nilly over pancakes, oatmeal, waffles, or ice cream. At our house, it's one of those necessary luxuries that makes life sweet.