Diner Week

Fans of Seinfeld will remember an episode guest-starring Courteney Cox, in which Cox’s character Meryl pretends to be Jerry’s wife in order to share his dry-cleaning discount. (’90s problems.) On their way to breakfast at—where else?—Monk’s Café, they run into Kramer, who returns Jerry’s maple syrup. “You bring your own syrup?” Meryl asks, confused. “Got to,” Jerry says. “You’ve got a lot to learn about pancakes.”

At Monk’s, after they’ve both ordered pancakes, the chef spies their BYO syrup in Meryl’s hand and threatens to confiscate it if he catches them with it again. “We don’t allow any outside syrups, jams, or condiments in the restaurant.”

I have always had trouble believing this policy—almost as much trouble as I’ve had believing that anyone would put an open bottle of maple syrup in the pocket of their overcoat. As anyone in possession of screw-top maple syrup can attest, it’s almost impossible to keep it clean. After a few uses, the mouth of the bottle crusts over with maple sugar, eventually making it difficult to screw the top on or off. By the time you get down to the last finger of syrup in the bottle the top is pressed down into the gritty scab of sugar crystals. It is not something you want to drop into the lined pocket of a wool coat.

Even allowing for suspension of disbelief with respect to food in the Seinfeld universe—the Soup Nazi, the chocolate babka, the marble rye—I hesitate to believe that a diner would restrict its patrons to the nameless, room-temperature table syrup, whether in a miniature glass pitcher, a squirt bottle, or single-serving packets, McDonald’s style. For one thing, BYO syrup doesn’t cut into their overhead or their sales: A “no outside food or drinks” policy is typically either a ban on all foods (as in a theater) or a way to ensure customers purchase the coffee for sale in the restaurant, rather than coffee from somewhere else. Syrup isn’t sold separately, and so if a diner can sell pancakes without depleting its syrup supply, whom does BYO syrup hurt, exactly?

For me, BYO syrup is a rare opportunity for snobbishness. As a white person who was born in Maine and raised in Connecticut, there are few food items I feel any regional or ethnic ownership of—lobster, New England clam chowder, baked beans, apples, and maple syrup more or less covers it, and even syrup is a stretch. (I’ve got family in New Hampshire, OK? It’s very close to Vermont.) Strong food opinions are a marker of regional identity, and debating “correct” iterations of signature meals is a way of arguing for one’s authenticity as an heir to the local food culture. And so it is with syrup.

New England syrup purists from any state will accept no syrup made south of Massachusetts, with Vermont syrup inspiring “It’s only Champagne if it’s from Champagne”-like arguments across the region. Canada produces the largest share of the world’s maple syrup supply, but far be it from Americans to give cuisine provenance its due—it was Native Americans who first developed the maple sugaring process, long before the arrival of European colonists. In any case, many such syrup die-hards will furthermore insist on very light, sweet “Vermont Fancy”-grade syrup, which technically no longer exists. As of 2014, the syrup grades previously named (from lightest to darkest) Fancy, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, Grade B, and Grade C/Commercial, will now be distinguished as (in the same order) Grade A: Golden Color with Delicate Taste; Grade A: Amber Color with Rich Taste; Grade A: Dark Color with Robust Taste; and Grade A: Very Dark Color with Strong Taste. Aside from being unnecessarily verbose, this is dumb. Rich, robust, and strong are vague flavor descriptors at best—the key words here are golden, amber, dark, and very dark—and calling them all Grade A seems unnecessarily confusing. Whatever its color, real syrup is thin and sweet, more like nectar than molasses. 

Whereas regional syrup aficionados distinguish quality based on syrup color, the more common distinction among lay syrups is thickness, popularly mistaken for richness. A 1978 Mrs. Butterworth’s commercial claims its syrup is “twice as thick” as the leading syrup, which should give us arterial pause, but it’s exactly this sort of syrup that has become a baseline standard for diners and breakfast restaurants across the board. Standard diner syrup is uniformly dark brown, and tastes and looks much like the high-fructose corn syrup varietals peddled by Mrs. Butterworth’s and Aunt Jemima, which deliver the flavor of the idea of syrup more than anything maple-derived. More crucially, pure maple syrup needs to be refrigerated after opening, since, without added preservatives, it can easily develop mold. Single-serving syrup tubs are one thing, but any standard-issue countertop syrup is not likely to be the grade formerly known as Vermont Fancy.

So with all this in mind, what is a New Englander to do? The Yankee pragmatist in me—who might otherwise be concerned about ruining a perfectly good coat with syrup crust—feels that if one is going to go out and pay for fluffy, delicious ricotta- lemon pancakes, why drown them in high-fructose factory goo? Every truly great pancake deserves a Grade A syrup, whatever its color. 

Inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s bootstraps epicureanism, I decided to go to breakfast with my own syrup. I chose the popular no-frills Brooklyn brunch spot Tom’s Restaurant, in a nod to the B-roll setting of Seinfeld’s Monk’s Café on the Upper West Side, which is also called Tom’s Restaurant. On my way I stopped to buy a bottle of Vermont’s Finest. I’d hoped to find the opaque jug-style containers I’d grown up with, the kind with a faux spout in the molded plastic just below the screw-top. What I found instead were eight- and 12-ounce glass bottles on a shelf labeled “Organic,” with a small sun dotting the “i.” Flanked by fair-trade raw blue agave syrup and all-natural peanut butter, the syrup bottles declared themselves vegan and GI-low (which I had to google) and every one of them was Canadian. Four aisles away, amid the corn syrup and non-organic honey, was a section four times as large for “regular” syrup—Aunt Jemima et al., at a third of the price. I sighed a culturally conflicted sigh and grabbed the least self-important-seeming flask of Canadian gravy: Shady Maple Farms 100% Organic Maple Syrup, designated U.S. Grade B (so much for the new system). It had a comically tiny imitation jug-handle at the neck of it, which might have fit an infant’s index finger. Given the context of my search, the handle resembled a loop for a lanyard, for hands-free syrup transport.

I was seated at Tom’s and handed a menu. The coffee arrived, as it always does, within seconds. I took out a crossword puzzle and contemplated when to reveal my BYO hoard. Better not to wait until my food arrived, since it might escape notice. Before putting my menu aside, I pulled the small glass bottle out of my tote bag and placed it in front of me on the table, label facing the congregation of waiters at the end of the counter. My waiter returned for my order—Danish pancakes: ricotta, blueberries, and lemon zest—barely glancing at the table before dashing off with my menu. I was disappointed, but the meal was early. I poked at the crossword and cheated the bottle out toward the rest of the dining room. My waiter dropped off a plate containing about 20 plastic-wrapped butter pads, three flavored house butters, and a large, wax-colored squirt bottle of dark brown syrup. As he set the display down at the far end of my two-top, his eye flickered across the conspicuously casual tableau vivant of BYO syrup and crossword. Instead of asking whether I wanted the house syrup, or informing me of a strict policy against outside condiments, he walked away again. I was shocking no one with my brash individuality and insouciant food snobbery that would compel me to bring my own syrup—price sticker intact and on display—rather than deign to sully my pancakes with the Tom’s viscous brown corn-syrup swill. What an asshole.

As soon as my pancakes arrived, however—three of them, about ten inches across and dotted with whole blueberries—I was glad for my forethought, and my snobbery. I peeled off the protective seal between the bottle and its “no drip pour spout” and drizzled the glistening amber contents onto my breakfast. Good syrup soaks into pancakes and waffles—rather than coating them—and makes sponge cake out of an entire meal. Even more than the (admittedly attractive) syrup-splaining potential of brunching with BYO syrup, the the proof is in the pouring. At home or at a diner, there’s no substitute.