Way back before the federal Food and Drug Administration got started, the sale of adulterated foodstuffs was both common and also a big issue, especially in large cities and in places with large immigrant (often low-income) populations. Most Europeans arriving in North America in the 19th and early 20th century had never tasted maple syrup or maple sugar, so when they bought it in their neighborhood grocery stores in America, they had nothing to compare it to.
Just how good was this strange American sweet stuff made from trees (well, tree sap, to be more precise)?
For many immigrant families, the verdict was clear: maple syrup was expensive, but nothing special. Why waste your money? After all, there were better sweeteners. Problem was, they weren’t really buying actual maple syrup. Because of that, maple syrup may never have been a part of your family food tradition.
The state of New York was an early leader in combatting food adulteration and fraudulent labeling through its Department of Agriculture. The 1911 report from the NYS Agriculture Department concerning the state’s 1905 labeling law neatly sums up the issue with regard to maple syrup:
Prior to 1905 very little genuine maple syrup could be found in the cities of New York State, as competition in the adulterated article or imitations drove it from the markets. Nearly all adulterated or imitation maple syrup, however, was labeled "Maple Syrup," and the majority of the containers were labeled “Vermont Maple Syrup," on account of the reputation of the state of Vermont, deemed the banner maple syrup and maple sugar producing state of the Union. This deception was easily practiced because of the fact that the consumers in localities where maple syrup was not made had acquired a taste for the adulterated or imitation product after many years' consumption, without ever tasting pure maple syrup. This applies to nearly all cities. Statistics showed that only one-tenth of the maple syrup and maple sugar consumed in the whole United States was produced in the United States. Investigations by the department proved that the so-called “Vermont Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar " were used principally for mixing with cane sugar or rock candy syrup to give it a flavor in imitation of the genuine article. Maple syrup was commonly adulterated with golden or drip syrup, with commercial glucose, with molasses and with refined sugar. The persistent activity of the department has changed those conditions, so that the consumer will be properly informed as to the nature of mixtures formerly sold as maple syrup. The labels of the containers no longer read "Maple Syrup" but bear, in some instances, "Fancy Table Syrup," "Table Syrup," or simply “Syrup," with the ingredients plainly set forth underneath the name of the article. Only in rare instances is the term "Vermont Maple Syrup" used on a syrup not the product of Vermont.
- Pages 76 – 77, Eighteenth Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture of the State of New York (Albany, 1911)
So, because so much “maple syrup” sold in large cities in the late 19th century was something else entirely, whole groups of people – especially in immigrant communities - grew up being duped by their favorite pancake syrup.
Imagine growing up thinking that all great Parmesan cheese came out of a green cardboard can-like affair …. That great artisanal cheese was always sold in individually wrapped slices… Or that classic chocolate chip cookies were made by elves who lived in a tree…
Why am I harping on maple syrup, you might ask?
Because I’m using it as an example of how we can study our historic family foodways thoughout history. What your family puts on the pancakes, waffles or French toast actually matters and can be a clue about what your ancestors did. Was it an early reaction to Caribbean slavery? Was it simply New England or New York self-reliance? Or were they duped into thinking that the real stuff was no big deal? Was it a cost issue?
But wait . . . there’s more.
As I said when I started this theme several days ago, food gets complicated for family historians. Some things are okay to eat; other things, not so much. Some things are familiar to some families; other things, weird. Your family’s reaction to foods like tripe, raw fish and certain pickled animal body parts is often culturally determined and passed down from one generation to the next.
Then there are external forces that can bring about dietary changes – some permanent and some temporary. Welcome to maple syrup, white cane sugar, politics and the days of the Hitler War. And what your grandma cooked. And why there was “War Cake”, sometimes called “Poor Man’s Cake.”
More next time.