Saturday, November 15, 2008

MUSCADINES

In honor of my friend Pam, Hero and Savior of countless homeless greyhounds in Georgia. We had a nice discussion of this little-known fruit just today.



The skin of a good ripe musky-dine will pop right off when you squeeze it between tongue and palate---that's the removal method the Good Lord intended. The skins are good for you, all those vitamins stored up for weeks as they basked in the Summer sun, and they make a satisfying "critch, critch" sound when you chew them. And they make KILLER jelly and jam.

We used to have a friend, an older woman who owned a good-sized plantation in the Mississippi Delta. She would entertain with lavish luncheons in her home or out on the shady grounds amongst the magnolias and weeping willows. She always served the same menu: Rosy thick slices of pale pink ham, gleaming with an edge of glistening white fat; Eggplant casserole, a smoky, cuminy, mideastern-flavored concoction with onions and another whole ham or two ground into the roasted-dark smush of eggplant; Fat green sticks of fresh asparagus lying like logpiles on platter after platter, a then-unknown-to-me beurre blanc forming a graceful blanket dotted with minced sour pickles.

Perfectly-matched rounds of thick tomato slices, great spirals of them, on cut-glass platters flanked by tall clear compotes of vinaigrette and homemade yolk-yellow mayonnaise; Golden rolls already sliced open in the kitchen, a big gob of fresh butter slid in to melt while the bread was too hot to handle. Little clear passing-pots of several kinds of homemade jam, with tiny spoons sporting clever little handle-sculptures of monkeys, birds, flowers.

I mentioned to her once how much I liked the flavor of the half-inch-thick pickles filling a big cut-glass compote. And thus I was introduced to “Cheater Pickles,” the easy kind in which you take store-bought dills or sours, slice them to suit yourself (we like them fairly thin, much thinner than Miss Hallie’s, ours sliced on a big yellow Popeil mandoline knockoff). Her recipe:

Buy you a gallon of store dills, whole ones or sliced. Cut your pickles if they’re whole and drain out all the juice. Start putting them back in the jug, with a big ladle of white sugar, a handful of cloves. Keep making layers like that til the jar is full. Turn it upside down once a day, then back up, to keep the sugar wet and absorbing. Ten days and it’s ready t’eat.
Forty-weight iced tea in heavy frosted goblets with a ring of lemon perched ladylike sidesaddle; a rank of glasses for the several wines offered during the meal; hot and scalding and perfect pan-boiled coffee poured from an immense silver samovar into cups the thickness of an eggshell, and stirred with dainty spoons befitting fairy tea.




And Muscadine Cobbler. Though there was a dessert table loaded with ethereal angel cakes on their tall stands, their several sauces flanking around, bread pudding with whiskey sauce, and the first and best trifle I ever tasted, a marvel of colors and layers in the transparent footed bowl, (and for which I stood and opened flavoring bottles in the store, seeking that elusive fragrance---almond, which I could not QUITE place).

The standout dish in Summer was muscadine cobbler. She had rolled the grapes through a chinois to extract the pulp and juice for making jelly, then froze the hulls in little pint tupperware freezer boxes, to mount up over the season into a couple of gallons of sticky, limp, rust-colored deflated little balloons. She put the frozen blocks into an enormous stockpot with a couple of bottles of muscat wine, usually from a now-defunct local vineyard we nicknamed the Redneck Rothschilds.

The mixture simmered slowly with sugar and vanilla into a seething mass of grape concentration unrivaled in cobblerdom. She used the cooking time to make and chill a "REAL shaw-wat crust" featuring several pounds of butter, and plain flour. The grape mixture was poured into long pyrex dishes, topped with a fancy-cut lattice, cream-brushed and sugar-scattered, with little globs of butter between all the frames.

When those fragrant pans emerged from the oven just before lunch was served, the entire company followed their noses to the kitchen door for just a peek before we sat down to lunch. Lots of laughing and talking, with keen eyes on the swinging doors toward the kitchen. Big appetites and great draughts of the beverages as the crowd of men consumed their meals; ladies were a bit more delicate in their munching, but in time there came the muscadine cobbler.

Huge silver spoons scooped great servings of still-warm pie into wide flat soup bowls; an already-scooped ball of vanilla ice cream was lifted from the great mound of them arranged in a big silver punchbowl, and the lovely fragrance was set down before us.

Never before or since have I tasted that particular combination, though we had muscadine and scuppernong arbors on our own lawn. The rusty-brown fruit met their own nirvana in that bowl of warm grapeness, that Summer-in-a-mouthful under the tendrils of melting vanilla.


And that's how they eat muscadines where I come from.


1 comment:

steelersandstartrek said...

Your recollections of what wuz are so vibrant I wish I was some sort of Ebenezer, just walking invisibly in your wake for a piece...