The locksmith eyed this birdfeeder and mentioned it might attract more bears than birds...oops.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Muscadine - Part One

The humble grape.

Have you ever considered how our lives have been affected by grapes?
We all grew up eating raisins, our baby fingers prying open the cardboard lid of the tiny red Sun-Maid raisin box, the one with the dark-haired girl on the cover, holding a large basket of grapes.

We learned from our Mamas to always taste one grape at the A&P just in case they were sour. As adults, we eyed the expensive Bordeaux glasses at William Sonoma, but wisely knew they'd only last 8.4 days before crashing to the hardwood floor into thousands of tiny splinters. (Mama always said a piece of white bread is the best way to grab onto those wickedly hard-to-find shards of glass.)

Haven't we dreamt of a vacation in Napa, sipping Cabernet, Zinfandel and Port, and in church, we remembered the blood of Jesus thanks to Welch's juice in a thimble sized cup.

Over our lifetime, we've consumed hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we've snickered at the tweed-jacketed fellow tilting back his head, while swirling a mouthful of wine, saying, "I detect a hint of black cherry and cigar, with a tinny finish of sheep wearing sweaters and celery root tea"

Why, the grape has played such a visible role in the average person's life, it's a marriage of sorts, sealed with the vow 'Till death do us part."

However, growing up Southern Baptist, we drank the 'Table Wine' of the South, sweet iced tea. Never did we sip the intoxicating juice of the fermented grape from a stemmed glass. That would have been a sin in the eyes of the Southern Baptist Convention.

We did, however, have liquor in the house. See, the way it worked was, we couldn't drink alcohol, but we could eat it. Mama loved to make bread pudding with whiskey sauce and I'm pretty sure she set her hair in rollers using beer to hold the curls. We abstained from drinking alcohol. Period.

And yet.

There was the muscadine.

 Every respectable Southern Baptist I knew, who was born south of the Mason Dixon line, kept a bottle of nectar-like muscadine wine in the pantry. While typically muscadine, it could also have been peach or blackberry wine.
Always homemade. And always thick with sweet.

 It wasn't necessarily spoken about out loud, or even served to guests. It was just there.  Even my mother-in-law, Miss Miriam, (who once told me if her son were elected President he could just serve lemonade at State dinners like Lemonade Lucy, President Hayes' wife), had a dusty bottle of  homemade, summer-peach wine hidden in the back of the cabinet, to soothe my early labor contractions.  (I'll have to admit I was shocked at the time and thought we'd have to drive north to Atlanta, leaving her Tyrone house, in the middle of the night, to find the doctor-prescribed glass of wine)

 But there it was.

After all, she was a daughter of the South, so of course, she had a bottle of homemade sweet wine hidden away. For just such a time as this.

I still remember standing in the kitchen, back in 1976, and sampling my first taste of muscadine wine. Mama and Daddy's friend, Jack, had a make-shift wine celler in his backyard, where he buried his bottles of muscadine wine in a hole in the ground, sort of like hiding the family silver from the yankees.

My own Grandmama made homemade wine, but this fact was unknown to me until many years after her passing into the Great By-and-By. She gave my Grandaddy Pop fits when his doctor advised an ounce of liquor a day for his Parkinson's. But after his passing, she'd sit with lady friends sipping her homemade wine, made from a jug of Welch's grape juice.

I guess this shouldn't surprise me. As soon as the drinking age was lowered to 18, back in 1977, she enlisted my help getting her 'medicine' at the local package store. " A little glass of Manischewitz blackberry wine helps me sleep, "she'd smile and say as she handed me a ten-dollar bill.

While we never made muscadine wine, we did make muscadine hull preserves. Daddy and I stood by the picnic table on the screened-in porch and hulled 2000 dark purple muscadines one warm, late September afternoon. There was nothing like rich, sweet preserves made with the jam and the skins. The only other place I had tasted such a treat was Calloway Gardens, and they had served it over ice cream.

Over the years, I've continued to preserve this tradition, so steeped in Southern history.  I want to share it with you, in the hopes you will also follow in the footsteps of your long-ago Southern ancestors, and 'put-up' the fruit of the woods, the humble muscadine. William Sonoma may never feature a muscadine sippin' glass, but your descendents will thank you for keeping this tradition alive.

Instructions for making Muscadine Preserves are in the following blog post.

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