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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The American Thanksgiving

For most people, the mention of Thanksgiving brings to mind visions of roasted turkey filled with stuffing, pumpkin pie, family get-togethers, football, and young schoolchildren acting out stories of the Pilgrims sharing the first feast with native Indians . But was that day of feasting at Plymouth really the first Thanksgiving in this country? Let’s take a look into some of the history concerning this popular American holiday.

Ancient cultures around the world have always held festivals to celebrate the harvest and pay tribute to their gods for the bounty bestowed upon them, a practice causing some church leaders to proclaim Thanksgiving a religions event. In fact, history has recorded a number of such ceremonies and feasts far predating the Pilgrims’ landing on America’s shores.

Evidence exists that the first such celebration in America was a thanksgiving Mass held in 1598 by Spanish explorers to thank God for their successful arrival at San Elizario, Texas, after weeks of crossing arid wastelands with a group of 500 colonists. There is also the founding of annual “Thanksgiving” services documented in the 1619 charter of Berkeley Hundred, a settlement near Virginia Colony, more than a year before the Mayflower’s arrival to America.

When the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock in December of 1620, the 102 passengers, known today as the Pilgrims, were ill prepared for the severe New England winter. While constructing their new settlement, most spent the nights back aboard the ship in an effort to escape the harsh conditions. Even so, by March more than half of the passengers and crew had died from exposure, scurvy, and other diseases.

With the onset of Spring, the Mayflower survivors moved ashore to their homes. Soon afterwards, they were surprised when Samoset, an Abenaki chief, walked into their settlement and greeted them in broken English. The next morning, Samoset left but returned some days later with Squanto, an English speaking member of the Pawtuxet tribe who was living in the nearby village of Pokanoket. With him was Massosoit (Ousamequin), leader of the Wampanoag Nation. With Squanto’s help, the Pilgrims formed an alliance with Massosoit and the Wampanoags that lasted for more than forty years. He also showed them how to hunt, fish, extract sap from maple trees, and grow corn and other vegetables.

In November 1621, Plymouth’s governor organized a three day feast to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest, inviting about ninety Wampanoag allies to join them, and becoming the model for our modern day Thanksgiving. Although there is no record of the exact menu served during the revelry, it has been chronicled that in preparation for the event, Governor William Bradford sent four men to hunt for all sorts of fowl, including wild turkey. It was also written that Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag contributed five deer to the celebration. And while some historians have suggested that most of the dishes were prepared using Native American seasonings and cooking methods, one thing is almost certain–that first Thanksgiving was void of the vast assortment of pies and other desserts that are a hallmark of today’s festivities.

Although the Pilgrims did hold a second celebration two years later, followed by occasional days of thanksgiving in other New England settlements, it would be 1789 before George Washington issued a proclamation naming November 26 as America’s first “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” in recognition of the successful conclusion to the Revolutionary War. Subsequent presidents, including John Adams and James Madison, also issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, but the dates and sometimes months of those celebrations varied.

Over the next four decades, several states attempted to adopt annual Thanksgiving holidays, although the efforts were disjointed with each choosing a different day. In fact, most southern states were largely unfamiliar with the custom. Then in 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale, noted magazine editor, writer and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” undertook a personal campaign to establish a national Thanksgiving holiday. Finally in 1863, after thirty-six years of Hale’s editorials and letter-writing to the top politicians, Abraham Lincoln finally named the last Thursday in November as the national day of celebration. That date remained in effect until 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Congressional bill making the fourth Thursday in November America’s official Thanksgiving Day (some years have five Thursdays in November) and a legal public holiday.

Celebrations of harvests and plentiful bounty have been recognized by cultures on every continent for millennia. In fact, Native Americans were commemorating their fall harvests with feasting and merriment long before Europeans set foot on their shores.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this special story about some of the events leading up to America’s Thanksgiving. May you and your loved ones be blessed with the best “turkey day” ever. Just remember these immortal words of an unknown author:

May your stuffing be tasty
May your turkey plump,
May your potatoes and gravy
Have nary a lump.
May your yams be delicious
And your pies take the prize,
And may your Thanksgiving dinner
Stay off your thighs!

Make ‘Em: Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie, Corn Casserole, Julia and Jacques’s Deconstructed Turkey With Corn Bread Stuffing and Gravy