Muscadine, the Native Grape of North America

On a recent road trip, I had the occasion to stop at one of those super travel stations. You know the ones I mean–gasoline, snacks, souvenirs, clean restrooms, and usually a barbeque or fast food restaurant. While browsing the aisles, I happened to notice a wide selection of what appeared to be jars of home-canned fruits, compotes, jams, and jellies. MuscadineJelly-4685-9-2And there, right between the “Homemade Pear Butter” and “Brandied Peach Preserves,” was a jar of sweet goodness that made my mouth salivate, a treat my tongue hadn’t experienced in at least three decades–a Ball jar of clear, deep violet colored muscadine jelly. An absolute must-have!

As I pulled my car back onto the highway, jelly in tow, my mind wandered back to my youth when my parents would take me to visit grandmother’s farm in southeastern Oklahoma. And of course, most of the time one or two of my mother’s sisters or brothers or both were also there, as well as four to six cousins. As there was little or no TV reception at the farm, we kids would spend our days playing in the barn or smoke house or down at the stock tank fishing. Occasionally, one of Muscadinethe older cousins would take us younger ones beyond the pasture and past the peanut fields down to the marshes where thick vines grew wild, climbing high into the trees. And there we would pick muscadines, filling our buckets with those deep purple, almost black fruits that were as big around as quarters. And being the kids we were, we would swing from the vines and eat so many of the luscious berries that our fingers and tongues would become discolored from chewing on the skins, trying to get out as much of the flavor as possible.

When we got back to the farmhouse, my mother, grandmother, and aunts would wash, cook, and strain the fruit, “putting up” several dozen jars of homemade muscadine jelly. And since my father was partial to preserves instead of jelly, grandmother would always make sure her son-in-law had a few jars that included the skins (or hulls, as we called them), and pulp. Of course a few seeds were always able to sneak in as well, but to my dad that didn’t seem to matter.

There was nothing better than one of my grandmother’s hot biscuits slathered with fresh churned butter and topped with a thick layer of that delectable muscadine jelly.

ESIC_black_muscadineLong before European and Spanish explorers set foot on American soil, the Cherokee and Creek Indians were making raisins, dumplings, drinks, and poultices from wild grapes they called muscadines.

Native only to the Southeastern and Southern United States, muscadines thrived in the warm, humid climate so prevalent in those states. In the mid-1600s when Arthur Barlowe, an English sea captain and explorer serving under the direction of Sir Walter Raleigh, landed on the banks of what is now Roanoke Island, he was so taken by the number of muscadine vines and fruit he saw that he wrote to Raleigh extolling that the fruitful land was “full of grapes, that I think in all the world, like abundance is not to be found.”

Scuppernong_mother_vine by Catherine KozakWhen Raleigh came to North Carolina in 1585, he discovered what is thought today to be the oldest grapevine in the United States, describing it as having a trunk two feet thick and stretching over one-half an acre long and coiling up tree trunks growing sixty feet tall. Actually this 400 year old producing “mother vine” is of the variety called scuppernong muscadine. The scuppernong was the first native American grape to be culitvated and is the state fruit of North Carolina.

Wild muscadine vines can be found growing from southern Delaware, southward along the Atlantic coast to northern Florida, and westward to Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. And because the muscadine is a native plant, its vines are practically immune to the fungus, bacteria, and plant pests that can destroy European grapevines. Muscadines grow best in fertile sandy loam of well-drained bottom lands that are subjected to neither extended drought or waterlogging.

scuppeernong 2Today, there are more than 300 muscadine cultivars, ranging in color from black to whitish bronze to dark purple. There are also red varieties and even some that remain green through maturity. The skins of muscadines are thick and so tough that many people bite off a small piece and suck out the sweet flesh inside. But it is the skins and seeds that excite many of today’s food scientists and nutritionists. They have found that powdered muscadine puree has more dietary fiber than oat or rice bran and can therefore help provide a wide range of health benefits including lowering blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels.

Publication1Research has also found that the muscadine is extremely high in resveratrol, the phytochemical found in red wine and thought to be the underlying reason that the French have such a low incidence of coronary heart disease. In fact, one serving of muscadine jam, one medium muscadine muffin, or two ounces of muscadine juice contain as much resveratrol as four ounces of red wine.

So there you go. Just another example of some of the delicious, yet healthy foods that are native to this great country in which we live. Now if you’ll excuse me, the biscuits just came out of the oven and my jar of homemade muscadine jelly awaits my presence at the breakfast table. Bon appétit, y’all!

Buy Em: Muscadine jelly ($4/10oz) or juice ($7/750ml) Hillside Vineyard & Berry Farm, Kosclusko, MS; Muscadine Jelly ($3.99/9oz) Southern Grace Farms, Enigma, GA; Ozark Country Market, Heber Springs, AR

Make Em: Muscadine Jelly, Grape Hull Pie, Muscadine Dump Cake

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New Year’s Food Traditions: For Luck and Prosperity

Probably no other holiday in America is more deeply entrenched in food tradition and superstition than New Year’s.

While the first recorded festivities celebrating the arrival of the new year date back 4,000 years to ancient Babylon, it was Julius Caesar who originally established January 1 as the first day of the year, with the introduction of his Julian calendar in 46 B.C. Then, in medieval Europe, Christian leaders, believing the merriment associated with the new year was far too pagan and party hatsunChristian like, replaced January 1 in favor of “more significant” religious days, such as December 25 (the date of Jesus’ birth) and March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation). However, January 1 was reestablished in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and his Gregorian calendar, the one most used today throughout the world.

In America, New Year’s celebrations start on December 31 (New Year’s Eve) and continue into the early hours of January 1 with parties, fireworks, concerts, and, of course, lots of food and drink. Exactly which foods, when eaten as part of the New Year’s first meal, are thought to bring prosperity and good luck during the coming year, depends largely on one’s location and ethnic background.

2648_MEDIUMPork, with its rich, fatty meat, has long been a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The pig is also considered a symbol of progress because they always move forward when rooting for food, unlike chickens and turkeys that scratch backward when feeding, representing setbacks and struggles. American Southerners favor ham and ham hocks, while Midwesterners and Pennsylvanians prefer pork ribs, chops, and kielbasa cooked with sauerkraut.

Fish is another food considered to be lucky. Its silveryRed snapper scales are said to be reminiscent of coins, they travel in schools which symbolizes abundance, and they swim forward to symbolize progress. The Chinese believe that serving the fish with head and tail intact ensures a good year, from start to finish. Crustaceans, such as lobster, shrimp, and crawfish, should be avoided since they scuttle backwards.

cabbageCabbage, kale, chard, and other greens are thought to bring good luck by several cultures because their green leaves are symbolic of money and economic fortune. In the southern states, collards are the greens of choice. The Danish tradition is stewed kale sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, while Germans and Poles enjoy sauerkraut, and the Irish boil cabbage with potatoes.

blackeyed peasLegumes including beans, peas, and lentils are also symbolic of coins. And because they swell when cooked, they are said to symbolize increased financial rewards. Italian families customarily cook their lentils with pork sausage to doubly ensure luck. In the southern states, the tradition is to eat black-eyed peas–one pea for each day in the new year–in a dish called hoppin’ john.

cornbreadCornbread is a favorite New Year’s treat in the American south because its color symbolizes gold. To ensure even more luck, some people add corn kernels, which are representative of golden nuggets. Living in the south is not required.

images (3)People from Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Cuba, and other Latin backgrounds have a tradition eating twelve grapes before the last stroke of the clock, each representing a month of the new year. Every sweet grape means a month pomegranateof luck and good fortune; every sour grape, a month of disappointment. Other good luck fruits include figs–a symbol of fertility and pomegranates whose many seeds symbolize prosperity.

noodlesEating long noodles, especially soba noodles, on New Year’s Day are thought by many Asians to bring long life. The longer they are, the better. But it’s considered bad luck if you break the noodle before getting it all into your mouth, so slurp carefully.

bundt cakeRing-shaped cakes and other round baked goods eaten on New Year’s are considered by many cultures to bring luck and the assurance of good fortune. In some cultures, a coin or special trinket is baked inside and whoever gets the surprise is guaranteed good fortune for the coming year–unless of course they break a tooth.

images (1)So there you have it. Ten ways to start your new year off right. Whatever juju you choose, we hope 2013 brings you all the success and good fortune you wish for. In the meanwhile, let’s all tip our glass to another round as we sing Auld Lang Syne, and wait for that giant ball to drop in Times Square.

Make Em: Pork Roast with Sauerkraut and Kielbasa, Southern-Style Collard Greens, Hoppin’ John, Grandma Etchieson’s Buttermilk Cornbread, Eggnog Pound Cake