by Ken Libertoff
“Did I overhear you say, real maple syrup?”
We looked up from our empty plates. Just fifteen minutes or so ago, our breakfast feast was stacked high. In response to the question, we nodded affirmatively and engaged our weary, sleepy-eyed, middle-aged waitress in what became a surprisingly meaningful and heartfelt conversation.
In November of 2021, we arrived in New Mexico at the start of an adventurous twelve days in the great southwest. Following a long day of air travel, flying from Burlington to Albuquerque, I was ready for an early, hearty breakfast. I am a good eater, and there is nothing wrong with basic diner fare back home, but now I anticipate a special southwestern meal. I am a devoted fan of spicy Mexican food, like huevos rancheros, prepared with red and green chili, which warms my heart and palate.
Traveling is a favorite activity and our recent trip combined family visits to New Mexico and Arizona while also touring such diverse places as Santa Fe, Sedona, the hilltop old mining town of Jerome, and the desert-like environment of Lake Havasu near the California border. It has always struck me that when traveling, one learns a lot about . . . oneself, not to mention traveling companions. Drafting plans in advance is helpful for us; the anticipation of an adventure fuels the spirit and soul. But usually, there are some differences in priorities, levels of comfort, and of course, the costs associated with leaving home. Finding a compromise is not always easy.
I am inclined to seek out simple, frugal accommodations while my wife Sarah seems to enjoy the thrill of an over-priced room in a more upscale hotel that is spotless and in perfect order. Besides not wanting to waste money, I prefer rubbing shoulders with the grittier aspects of life on the road where one meets real people as opposed to plastic, dull robots who often are bland and end a conversation with wishes for a good day without looking up from their fancy hotel front desk computer screen.
To balance our differences, on this trip, we took turns selecting sleeping quarters on this trip. I had the first choice, which is how we ended up at the San Mateo Inn in Albuquerque. Even I had to laugh with muted amusement at the brilliance of naming this facility an Inn since, even to the uneducated eye, the facility was an old, shabby, and run-down motel that had seen better days. But who is to quibble when the daily rate is $69.
Our room presented us with some issues and challenges. The central light fixture near the beds did not work, and the front desk folks admitted that it needed attention. After a day and a half of a rather gloomy, dark atmosphere, this malfunction was corrected, although several attempts failed, making us wonder why they gave us this room to begin with. Sarah again exposed her lofty standards when reporting that the rug in our room was unsatisfactory, claiming it was sticky. Thinking positively, I thought perhaps the Inn applied some unique formula to keep older patrons from tripping and falling.
It might have been the Inn’s commitment to frugality and keeping things basic that found our abode lacking stoppers in both the bathroom sink and bathtub. And after a brief search, we agreed that the room did not come with every amenity . . . like a box of tissues. My suggestion to substitute toilet paper for tissues did not go over well. Not daring to comment, I did detect a specific odd stale odor that permeated our little love nest.
When we engaged with staff at the front desk, they were, however, extremely sympathetic, warm with concern, and generally caring, even if they struggled to solve most problems. Sarah, despite her reservations about the place, gave them high marks for “trying” and for being “engaged” as we learned much about the life history of several front desk staff who shared details about growing up in the Land of Enchantment, identifying local hotspots and providing recommendations for cheap food. They pointed out one tangible asset of staying at the Inn, namely its proximity to a nearby Denny’s restaurant that is steps away.
For the first three mornings, we walked out of the front door of the San Mateo and practically landed at the front door of Denny’s restaurant. While the beautiful Sandia Mountains loom tall over the city, our view from the Inn was limited to the back of the restaurant, which, while not inspiring, let us know when the vast garbage bins in the back needed attention. I was uplifted, however, to learn from the front desk staff that our San Mateo key afforded us a 10% discount on meals at Denny’s, causing me to take comfort that we were saving even more money.
We both wanted a stack of pancakes, but at this local Denny’s, to get the pancakes, you had to order the Grand Slam, an “All American” meal which indeed was a colossal hit. With assistance from our waitress, she rattled off the deal, which, of course, started with two great and handsome pancakes, accompanied by two eggs, two pieces of bacon, two pieces of sausage, a helping of potatoes, and last but not least, two buttered pieces of toast. As a bona fide “good eater,” I had little to complain about – except that I refuse to eat pancakes with fake syrup, which usually comes in a large plastic container with no identifying labels. While my culinary standards are low, I refuse to eat this breakfast treat without good, old Vermont maple syrup.
Being a loyal and patriotic Vermonter, I always carry a small container of maple syrup purchased at Morse Farm up on County Road outside Montpelier when I anticipate a pancake restaurant treat away from home. After making derogatory remarks about the fake stuff, I produced my cherished Morse Farm container. What joy and what pleasure to slyly open my liquid gold and smother our pancakes with the real thing. Even Sarah, who years ago found my behavior to be “unusual,” had to agree that my approach had some virtue as I took pains to remind her that it was a sound economic strategy with hints of frugality since many restaurants, especially high-end restaurants, provide real maple syrup but only when adding an extra exorbitant fee to the bill.
With a stack of beautiful pancakes all buttered up, I fumbled in my jacket pocket and pulled out my attractive glass container from Morse Farm, and poured the syrup with anticipatory glee. And for that moment, the shortcomings at the Inn melted as Sarah too worked her way through the stacked pancakes, enhanced and graced by ambered colored Vermont syrup.
“Did I overhear you say real maple syrup?” our waitress asked as she slipped our bill on the table. This stranger, this hardworking, decent woman who looked like she had been serving food since before sunrise that morning, came closer to inspect the attractive syrup bottle shaped like a maple leaf.
To our surprise, as we looked at her, tears welled in her eyes, and she momentarily could not talk, choked with emotion. This stranger with wet cheeks suddenly transformed before us in this unexpected intimate moment. Dabbing her eyes dry, she collected herself and related in a halting, strained voice how her dear, deceased mother always glazed the family Thanksgiving turkey with great Vermont maple syrup. The recipe that was now part of her holiday tradition. She fondly told us how her mom splurged over this special Thanksgiving treat, hinting at modest family means. Seeing our maple syrup bottle obviously triggered a chain reaction of emotions that keyed on her affection for her mother and nostalgia for family Thanksgiving gatherings during her younger years.
As she composed herself, all three of us were moved. We thanked her for sharing this slice of her family history. Inspired by her story, we suggested that when we prepare our Thanksgiving turkey later in November, we also coat it with a dollop of maple syrup in honor of her mom.
We paid our bill and headed out. Thanks to the San Mateo Inn and the nearby Denny’s, our chance encounter in New Mexico reaffirmed the goodness and shared humanity that can flow from connections with total strangers, giving hope for family memories and the future.
The author was director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health in Montpelier for 30 years. He has written previously for Vermont Daily Chronicle about baseball Hall of Famer Robin Roberts and Montpelier baseball.