Posts Tagged ‘Concord grapes’

Well, this was quite a week.

Most of the U.S. is starting to recuperate after we learned an adult will be in charge come January. (One joke says, ‘That’s why he’s called Sleepy Joe: Because we can finally sleep!’) The relief is indescribable — a huge burden off our backs that we knew we were carrying, but until it was taken off, we never knew how heavy it was.

Of course, we’re negotiating a lot until he gets there, and by negotiating, I mean mostly trying not to end up in a Covid ward.

(How about this post, huh? Knee-slapping fun so far? Don’t worry — you guys know I don’t stay poopy for too long.)

I’ve been keeping the wheels turning. Yesterday I made an apple pie that was almost savory: a variety of apples, cinnamon, and nutmeg inside, and a crust and crumbly topping made with extra-sharp cheddar cheese. No extra sugar. These days, people like pie a la mode (i.e., with a scoop of ice cream on top). But did you know a century or so ago, people ate apple pie with a wedge of cheese on top? I ran with that old notion: cheesy apple pie.

My freezer is almost full. Your little brunette squirrel has been tucking away produce since March so she doesn’t have to pay store prices (and so she doesn’t have to rely on shoppers to choose it. She’s picky.). Last week, after two days of rain, the farm was about to turn under their broccoli crop. If the florets get waterlogged and ooshy, they’re not fit to eat. But the bases stay intact and are delicious. I asked if I could have those, and the folks there tipped their hats to me. Free broccoli! So I cut 20 heads (not a typo), cut off the tops, and brought them home. Peeled of their fibrous outer layer, the yield amounted about six cups to the freezer. So grateful. I want to dig some more carrots, but aside from that, my freezer will be ready for winter. Every fruit and vegetable in there is something I either harvested at the farm or found in the wild.

Along with managing the aforementioned ooshiness, this year I squinted as I gathered beach plums at dusk, picked sweet grilling peppers in mud and driving rain, and risked ticks to collect wineberries in an overgrown abandoned lot. When I was a long way from home and felt blisters starting on my heels, I stuffed maple leaves in my boots and kept going. And I climbed fences to reach Concord grapes, far off the road.

By the luck of the draw, I am not a princess. And in a year like this, it has served me well. I hope it continues.

I also made the pie above. The top layer is butternut squash from the farm and the dark purply layer underneath is made with those beach plums. Smooth and mellow paired with sharp and tart. It’s a good metaphor for the dichotomy that is November 2020.

Stay safe, everybody.

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Getting grounded is high on my list of making it through this year with my sanity (such as it is) intact.* But I’ve been surprised at how often grounding has come as a result of getting off my bottom and doing brand new things. Of wanting to.

For one thing, I’ve visited Monmouth Battlefield three times in as many months. This is a major Revolutionary War site, about half an hour away, where George Washington and the Continental Army were able to hold the field. It’s also where I find my Concord grapes in August. A few weeks ago I visited a small clapboard house whose family hightailed it out of there when the fighting got intense; the British used it as a makeshift hospital. Since building is prohibited on that hallowed ground, except for the soldiers and the whites of their eyes, the countryside for miles around looks the same as did was back then. And yesterday I visited a church that served as a Continental Army hospital, still bearing bloodstains on its wooden pews after 242 years.

These places of brutality are now serene; all I ever hear is crickets, birds, and the wind through the drying leaves. But I feel the ghosts there. They’re not scary. They were in the same situation in this country, in their own way, in their own time. They get where I am, and it’s comforting.

From my quince tree (that no one pays attention to, hooray), I also nabbed more fruit this year than in any other. Cinnamon-poached quinces and turnovers resulted so far. Got another recipe, a new one that a friend remembers from a trip to Turkey, on the horizon. This feels enormously peaceful to me.

Plus there’s the below. For years — I mean it — I have wanted to put up tomatoes, but always chickened out, scared of botulism. But this year, with the help of two online resources, a print one, and a Zoom with a smart friend, it finally happened. They’re in the coolest place in my house. In my bedroom closet behind my sweaters, obviously. I laugh when I see them every morning, my own docile army of Redcoats.

It doesn’t make sense that following my nose to new and different and surprising would be grounding, and not Sticking to What I Know Thank You Very Much, but exactly what makes sense these days?

There will definitely come a point this winter when I ease up on doing new stuff and park an open book on my lap. Maybe.

*’Why fight it? I’ll just go crazy and be inconspicuous. — Hawkeye, M*A*S*H (the episode where Klinger and Colonel Potter start doing yoga)

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Does everyone have a white whale? Something we’ve looked for all our lives, or it definitely seems it? And on wildly rare occasions we find it, but most often we end up like Ishmael — living to tell the tale, but that’s it?

I think I may have found mine. I’ll know in a few weeks.

It started with a hot tip.

When I told my friend Sandy that I forage for Concord grapes, he gave me a memory: During gym class he and his high school classmates would run along the treeline behind the school and snack on grapes that grew there. This was back in the ’60s, but I sometimes I see shows at this school and know that treeline still exists, because the road to the theater runs parallel to it. Last week I took a half vacation day and drove out there. Concords aren’t ripe until late summer, but the vines stick around. I’d be able to identify those.

The back of this property is far off the road. Besides the homeowners on the other side of the fence and stream, who weren’t around, and the school groundskeeper, who idly waved and kept mowing, I was alone. Ideal.

The vines were still there, after 50+ years. And they’re easier to access than my usual beloved spot. This is good, because as nature (and the ticks and vicious wild rose canes therein) swallows up more of the path every year, picking Concords there will soon require me to wear clothes that cover every inch of bare skin. It’s not a thought to relish in late August, so I welcome a Plan B.

This recon mission would have gotten an A+ if the grapevines were all I found. But next came the crabapple tree and cousins.

(Just a quick aside to let you know I am not a science wonk, let alone a botanist, by any remote stretch of the imagination. Do you need an example? Here you go: In college I studied my butt off in bio, but could not coerce the data into my grey cells if I’d had a crowbar. I expected to flunk. When I learned I had been awarded a D- for the semester, I was elated. At least I wouldn’t have to take the stupid course again. That’s how crap I am at science.

So why, with empirical non-prowess under my belt, do I notice that mulberry trees and elderflowers virtually always grow near water? And why did I realize last week when I saw members of the Rose family growing together that they often enough tend to?)

First I spotted an ancient crabapple tree. Then it was wineberry canes (which fruit in July and are profoundly tart. Imagine a raspberry after it ate half a bag of Sour Patch Kids, watched the remake of “Cats,” and suffered the inevitable existential crisis). Then it was wild rose canes, which might be flowers and nothing more, or might be wild raspberries, or blackberries. Either way, giant family reunion. They’re all Roses.

And so is the little white whale, the shyest member of this family reunion. I looked down in the shade and thought it was a stray blossom blown down from the crabapple or rose canes; they all feature a similar flower. Then I saw the serrated triple leaves and just stared.

For years upon years I have been hoping to come across fraise des bois, aka woodland strawberries, aka Alpine strawberries. Powerfully, intensely sweet — called a delicacy and deserving it — and far better known in Europe. I don’t know if it’s because there are more there or because we no longer have a foraging culture here in the U.S. and just don’t notice them. But I’ve never come across a wild strawberry during my hunts, beyond yet another Rose cousin, the wild strawberries that begin with a tiny yellow flower and produce a tiny bland fruit.

Woodland strawberries begin with a white flower. And I’ve never seen nor tasted a sweet one until, maybe, fingers crossed, if the deer don’t get them first, inside a month from when I write this.

You’re picturing me parking next to them with a sleeping bag, like I’m on line for Stones tickets, aren’t you? You’re not crazy.

A few weeks ago I read an interview with a guy who lives most of his life as a hermit. He said the best way to get through monotony, as we do now during the pandemic, is to find something you can track. Foragers never stop tracking — seasons, rain, sun, groundskeepers. Strawberries fruit in late spring, Memorial Day at the very earliest. This was a cold spring. But June is on the horizon.





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This is been a milestone summer for me. I’ve had to learn to balance a new job and commute, which provides what I need to survive, with time in nature, which provides what I need to live.

I’m not going to say it’s been easy, late afternoon- and weekend-warrioring. But man, those moments have been sweet.

This summer I found wild blackberries growing along banks I’ve wandered since I was a kid, but never noticed. Made tea from flowers and leaves I dried, made lattice-topped pies from olive oil crusts instead of butter (never thought it would work, but guess what), and made sure to throw a pebble into the lake just to hear the PLUNK that always, always satisfies.

For the first time, I saved my molars and got every pit out of the wild Concord grapes I found, smacking my lips on their tartness. Swapped in my beach plums for cranberries in my favorite crisp, and they were fantastic. Sneaked onto footbridges in the woods and onto the lawn of my shamelessly absent neighbor, where in the dark of night I shamelessly picked enough fruit to make sour-cherry tarts.

I sank my tired feet into powdery sand and let the wind and 360-degree pink-and-grey sunsets wash the stress off me. There were 17 seagull tail feathers at the beach the other night, perfect quills for my next production of “1776.” Was serenaded by a Russian mulberry-lover, very much off-key (don’t ask. Actually, do. Great payoff.). Discovered that honeysuckle blooms in fits and starts all summer, just right for drying, and jammed May-fresh ones into a bottle of Laird’s to flavor the whiskey. Twice I sat and watched the yellow sunlight sparkles chase each other over the lake, and once I saw a fleet of catfish making kissy-faces at the surface of the water.

Walked the trail at Monmouth Battlefields, the Revolutionary War site, and marveled that Washington and the boys withstood 90-degree heat on that day in June while in wool uniforms (many couldn’t, and succumbed to heatstroke). Sat down to take a shot of a lone apple, looking like a dropped musket ball, and spent the next 15 minutes plucking vicious grassy needles off my bum. Freedom has its price.

Yesterday I really felt the sun and wind and crunch of sycamore leaves as I trudged along the banks of my lake. Today, driving home, I really loved the different greys of the clouds, layered like deckled pages in a book, and felt the coolness — new to the season but old, coming back.

So the wheel starts its descent, so the fall of the year has begun. Falling with it.



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Disney World’s EPCOT is one of my favorite places on earth, which should confirm any suspicion about my sanity; and when I go there, I head straight to their Living With the Land ride*. It features a farmhouse so beautiful and romantic that I want to move into it. Tall shade trees planted around it, gracious front porch, friendly mongrel wagging his tail, chickens warbling. It is late afternoon; the family bustles around after a long day.

The drive out to my job slices New Jersey in half, like a belt across its waistline. The road I take, Route 33, used to drive my mom crazy. A serious point A-to-point B driver, she derisively called it ‘that little two-lane farm road.’ But I like it. When you’re an earthy type who’s at a desk all day, it’s nice to have reminders all around of earthiness.

I started foraging for wild Concord grapes two years ago. Before then I never saw grapevines anywhere. Now I see them everywhere — especially on the little two-lane farm road. It’s not far from where I harvest grapes every August, actually. I also see elderflower shrubs and lots of beautiful rich green corn. I’m sad to see For Sale signs in front of huge cornfields. Development has hit farmland hard in the Garden State. New farmers are starting to take back the land, some of it, but it’s not fast enough for me. I fantasize about the corn slowly surrounding the For Sale signs and swallowing them up in a massive leafy maw.

The Route 33 extension in Freehold was built across more farmland. Back in the eighties my dad used to buy corn there on his way home from work in the summer. Mr. Matthews knew my dad from a distance and they’d speak to each other in code across the fields: My dad would get out of the car and hold up fingers for however many ears he wanted; Mr. Matthews, on his tractor, would nod and pick that amount. Next to hour-old corn, supermarket corn is ridiculous.

The road runs right through Mr. Matthews’s farm. I think of him every time I drive over this part of the highway. I don’t even know if he’s still alive, this farmer I never met, and wonder what he’d think if he heard the daughter of that guy who held up fingers for corn remembers him every time she drives across his land, and so many years later.

In the distance just before the extension is a beautiful old farmhouse with shade trees planted around it. I think about how high and healthy they are, that the way they are now is what the owners had in mind when they planted them, and how lucky I am that I get to see them as they were intended, surrounding a gracious front porch. And I imagine a friendly mongrel wagging his tail and chickens warbling. If I walk across the cornfield and peek in the window in the late afternoon, will I see the ghost of a family busy getting dinner?


*Google it; it’s awesome, but it’s probably not kosher to post a link. I don’t want to mess with the Mouse.






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I had every hope of finding Concord grapes today in a local park. But the guy who told me about them impressed upon me the fact that they tend to wrap their viney selves around trees, way out of reach. So I might find them, sure, but would they taunt me from their lofty perch, giggling at my dinkiness? Probably. I suited up (boots past their prime, socks over the cuffs of my jeans, old t shirt, and backpack) and went anyway. I looked like a bohemian infantryman, which worked since the grapes were supposed to be somewhere at Monmouth Battlefield, the site of one of the most intense fights of the Revolutionary War.

It had been years since I’d been on these hallowed grounds—acres and acres of rolling hills, old fences, tree-lined pastures, nodding false Queen Anne’s lace blossoms, and no sound but the whirring of crickets. No sound except for today, when I was hiking behind two elderly couples who stopped every few feet to discuss in detail why the battle was an important one, even though all were Americans and might have heard of the kerfuffle we’d once had with the British. The gentleman who took the lead in enlightening the hikers, the pastures, and the crickets on the battle had the kind of manner that always seems as if he’s pontificating, even if he’s talking about tomorrow afternoon’s forecast. I’d planned on taking a right after the bridge, but took a left to get the noise out of my ears. At a place like this, all of that yammering felt blasphemous.

At first I found a lot of what looked like grape vines—they were all over—but found no grapes on them, so I figured I’d just enjoy the walk and the soul of the place. But I kept looking. And when I spotted my first few, a few feet over my head under an awning of leaves, I just stared, dumbstruck. These are the variety that’s made into grape jelly. Treasure is in the eye of the beholder.

There were in fact a few clusters out of reach along that pathway, maybe a half mile long. I think the deer probably got to the lower ones first. But a lot were accessible, even for Miss Five-Foot-Three, and I got about a quart’s worth.

Most important thing I learned while picking Concords: Wild rose canes are vicious. I’ve added their tiny vampire-like cuts to the ones I got last week while picking beach plums (more on that later). War wounds on war-grounds. Worth it. And I’m so grateful to those couples for their insufferable prattle or I never would have turned left.

I think I’ll make peanut butter muffins and top them with these.

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