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Ken Libertoff: A small world connection thanks to Vermont maple syrup

This comment is from Ken Libertoff, who retired after 30 years as director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health.

“Did I hear you say real maple syrup?”

We looked up from our empty plates. Just about 15 minutes ago, our breakfast feast was stacked full. In response to the question, we nodded and engaged our tired, sleepy, middle-aged waitress in a surprisingly meaningful and heartfelt conversation.

In November 2021 we arrived in New Mexico at the start of an adventurous 12 days in the great Southwest. After a long day of flying from Burlington to Albuquerque, I was ready for an early, hearty breakfast. I’m a big eater and there’s nothing wrong with plain diner fare at home, but now I was expecting a special Southwestern meal. I’m an avid fan of spicy Mexican food, like huevos rancheros, made with red and green chillies that warms my heart and taste buds.

Travel is a popular activity, and our most recent trip combined family visits to New Mexico and Arizona with a tour of places as diverse as Santa Fe, Sedona, the old hilltop mining town of Jerome, and the desert-like surroundings of Lake Havasu near the California border. It’s always struck me that traveling is a great way to learn a lot about yourself, let alone fellow travelers.

Making plans in advance is helpful for us; the anticipation of an adventure inspires spirit and soul. But usually there are some differences in priorities, comfort levels and of course the costs associated with getting out of the house. Finding a compromise is not always easy.

I tend to seek out simple, economical accommodations, while my wife Sarah seems to enjoy the thrill of an overpriced room in a more upscale hotel that is immaculate and in perfect order. Aside from not wanting to waste money, I prefer to rub shoulders with the grittier aspects of life on the street where you meet real people as opposed to boring plastic robots that are often boring and have a conversation with wishes for you end the good day without looking up at their fancy computer screen at the hotel reception.

To even out our differences, we took turns choosing sleeping accommodations on this trip on this trip. I had first choice and that’s how we ended up at the San Mateo Inn in Albuquerque. Even I laughed with hushed amusement that calling this establishment an inn was brilliant, since even to the uneducated eye the establishment was an old, shabby, run-down motel that had seen better days. But who’s to argue when the daily rate is $69.

Our room presented us with some problems and challenges. The central light near the beds didn’t work and the people at the front desk admitted that it needed attention.

After a day and a half in a rather gloomy, dark atmosphere, this glitch was fixed, although several attempts failed, leaving us wondering why they gave us this room in the first place. Sarah again showed her high standards when she reported that the carpet in our room was unsatisfactory and claimed it was sticky.

On a positive note, I thought the inn might have employed a unique formula to prevent elderly guests from stumbling and falling. It may have been the inn’s commitment to thrift and keeping things safe that meant our apartment lacked plugs in both the sink and bath. And after a short search we agreed that the room was not equipped with all amenities. . . like a box of tissues. My suggestion to replace toilet paper with tissues was not well received. I didn’t dare to comment, but I detected a certain strange stale smell permeating our little love nest.

However, when we contacted the front desk staff, they were extremely personable, warm and generally caring, even as they went out of their way to sort out most issues. Despite their reservations about the place, Sarah gave them high marks for ‘trying’ and ‘dedication’ as we learned a great deal about the life story of several of the front desk staff who shared details of growing up in the Land of Enchantment and identified as locals hotspots and give recommendations for cheap food. They pointed to one tangible advantage of the inn: its proximity to a nearby Denny’s restaurant, which is just steps away.

The first three mornings we walked out the front door of the San Mateo and practically ended up in front of Denny’s Restaurant. With the beautiful Sandia Mountains towering high above the city, our view from the inn was limited to the back of the restaurant, which while uninspiring did let us know when the giant trash cans in the background required attention. However, I was glad to learn from the front desk staff that our San Mateo key gave us a 10% discount on meals at Denny’s, giving me reassurance that we were saving even more money.

We both wanted a batch of pancakes, but at this local Denny’s, you had to order the Grand Slam, an “All American” meal, to get the pancakes. Our waitress rattled off the deal which of course started with two great and pretty pancakes accompanied by two eggs, two pieces of bacon, two pieces of sausage, a portion of potatoes and last but not least two pieces of buttered toast.

As a true “good eater,” I’ve had little to complain about—except refusing to eat pancakes made with fake syrup, which usually comes in a large plastic container with no identifying labels. Though my culinary standards are low, I refuse to eat this breakfast without good old Vermont maple syrup.

As a loyal and patriotic Vermonter, I always carry a small container of maple syrup, bought at Morse Farm up County Road outside of Montpelier, when I’m anticipating a treat at the pancake place outside. After making snide remarks about the fake stuff, I brought out my treasured Morse farm container. What joy and what pleasure to slyly open my liquid gold and smother our pancakes with the real one.

Even Sarah, who found my behavior “unusual” years ago, had to admit there was merit in my approach when I struggled to remind her that it was a sound economic strategy with a hint of frugality since many restaurants, particularly high-end, end restaurants offer real maple syrup, but only if an additional exorbitant fee is added to the bill.

With a stack of beautiful pancakes all buttered, I fumbled in my jacket pocket, pulled out my attractive Morse Farm glass jar and poured the syrup with expectant glee. And for that moment, the inn’s shortcomings melted away as Sarah, too, worked her way through stacked pancakes, layered and garnished with amber Vermont syrup.

“Did I hear you say real maple syrup?” our waitress asked as she placed our bill on the table. This stranger, this hardworking, decent woman who looked as if she had been serving food since before sunrise that morning, came over to inspect the attractive maple leaf-shaped syrup bottle.

To our surprise, tears welled up in her eyes and she couldn’t speak for a moment, choking on emotion. This wet-cheeked stranger, patting her eyes dry, collected herself and recounted in a halting voice how her dear, late mother used to glaze the family’s Thanksgiving turkey with great Vermont maple syrup. This recipe was now part of their holiday tradition.

She lovingly told us how her mother squandered that special Thanksgiving treat, hinting at humble family backgrounds. The sight of our bottle of maple syrup obviously set off a chain reaction of emotions that sparked her affection for her mother and her longing for Thanksgiving family celebrations at a young age.

When she pulled herself together, all three of us were touched. We thanked her for sharing this piece of her family history. Inspired by her story, we suggested we baste our Thanksgiving turkey with a dollop of maple syrup later in November in honor of her mom.

We paid our bill and were on our way. Thanks to the San Mateo Inn and nearby Denny’s, our chance encounter in New Mexico validated the kindness and shared humanity that can come from connections with complete strangers, and gave hope for family memories and the future.

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Keywords: Albuquerque, Denny’s, Ken Libertoff, New Mexico, Pancakes, San Mateo Inn, Vermont Maple Syrup

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