Have you ever wondered why the most expensive Grade A maple syrup is thin and bland while the good, intensely flavored syrup is labeled Grade B and sells for much less? The answer illustrates the degree to which food is a powerful symbol of identity, authenticity, and moral integrity.
According to Yoni Applebaum, writing for the Atlantic Online, the reason has to do with symbolism and identity rather than flavor. In the early days of syrup production, in the young American colonies, the aim was to boil it down until it resembled expensive cane sugar to show that American colonists could make a product as rare and elegant as what was served at the finest European tables.
After the revolution, this refined syrup was a symbol of what “free labor” could accomplish. It was touted as a way of destroying the market for sugar cane that was produced by Caribbean slaves laboring in horrible conditions.
Attitudes changed in the 19th Century when cane sugar became more abundant and less expensive. As Americans migrated from the farm to the cities and the frontier, they missed the maple flavor which symbolized the virtues of the rural life they had left behind. Furthermore, the thin, bland, sugary version of maple syrup could be easily imitated using cheaper ingredients. Thus, much of what was sold as maple syrup was not maple syrup at all. When the fraud was exposed, maple syrup became a symbol of authenticity in the food supply, although it was still the bland stuff that was prized.
Eventually, of course, the corporate food industry began making syrup that was mostly sugar with very little maple sap. Today, the thicker, more flavorful Grade B syrup is marketed by small producers as the authentic maple syrup drawing on that nostalgia for the past, despite the fact that in the past no one much cared about it. These producers are proposing that the traditional rating system be scrapped so that thick, flavorful syrup is no longer viewed as second-rate.
Take away point? Food is a symbol system every bit as powerful as the symbol systems we find in painting or music.