Muscadine, Scuppernongs and Blackberries
Muscadine, Vitis rotundifolia, is a grapevine species native to the southeastern and south-central United States from Florida to Delaware, west to eastern Texas and Oklahoma. It has been extensively cultivated since the 16th century. The plants are well adapted to their native warm and humid climate; they need fewer chilling hours than better known varieties and they thrive on summer heat.
Muscadine berries range from bronze to dark purple to black in color when ripe. However, many wild varieties stay green through maturity. They have skin sufficiently tough that eating the raw fruit often involves biting a small hole in the skin to suck out the pulp inside. Muscadines are not only eaten fresh, but also are used in making wine, juice, and jelly.
These were often called bullacies and sometimes sculpins. Bullace is actually a wild plum but the name was used for these items as well in our area.
Muscadine grapes are rich sources of polyphenols and other nutrients studied for their potential health benefits. Gallic acid, (+)-catechin and epicatechin are the major phenolics in seeds, while ellagic acid, myricetin, quercetin, kaempferol, and trans-resveratrol are the major phenolics in the skins.
In a natural setting, muscadines are important plants for improving wildlife habitat by providing cover, browse, and fruit for a wide variety of animals.
Muscadines have been used for making commercial fine wines and port wines dating back to the 16th century in and around St. Augustine, Florida. Today, vineyards throughout the Southeast produce muscadine wines of various qualities.
The typical muscadine wine is sweet because vintners traditionally add sugar during the winemaking process; the wine is often considered a dessert wine although some drier varieties exist. The term scuppernong refers to a large bronze type of muscadine originally grown in North Carolina; it is also used in making wine, principally dry red table wine
Now, that is a lot of information about muscadines. More than you will ever need, probably. That is especially true for those who have walked by and stepped on the darn things for years and never given them a second thought! But that was not always the case.
Growing up in the rural South in the 40’s and 50’s, everybody knew what muscadines and scuppernongs were and could tell the difference. Although I am not sure that they really knew that a scuppernong was a muscadine, but a muscadine is not necessarily a scuppernong, you see.
In the summer, there were certain rituals that were practiced on the farms. In the case of my Grandparents, they were produce farmers. They had cows and pigs and chickens but their main focus was produce. They grew peas of various varieties as well as butter beans, squash, tomatoes, pole beans, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, okra and sometimes peppers. One year we had 150 acres of watermelons. There was also corn and cotton and later soybeans in the mix.
Corn, cotton, and soybeans can mature in the field and be harvested without too much fear of the stuff spoiling, within reason. They tend to be “fall” crops. In the case of soybeans, sometimes two crops can be grown if the weather cooperates. But with peas, beans and the other “produce” crops you have to pick them at the right time or they spoil. You have to get them to market in a timely fashion. Large cooperate farms use mechanized harvesting equipment on peas and butter beans today and, as a result, they only get one time to harvest a given field as the harvesting destroys the plants. In the “old days” the work was done by hand and the same field might get “picked” two or more times, depending on the yield. Field plots were planted in staggered time frames to prevent the entire crop getting ready at once and having a crisis getting it picked before spoilage set in.
When these crops were “picked” they would be loaded up in the field and taken to the big open barn or the front or back porch of the house. Some wide open and reasonably clean spot out of the sun was chosen where they would be spread out on the floor or sheets to allow them to cool down, usually overnight with a fan blowing over them. They would be tossed like a salad at times to allow the bottom of the spread out beans to get some air. All this was to prevent spoilage.
Early the next morning, and I mean early, the process of loading and weighing the bushel hampers with the various items would begin. It was dark and cool and by now the heat was out of the peas and beans and they could be safely put into the hampers. Each product had a defined weight that constituted a bushel. There were also “peck” sizes. Hence the term, “a bushel and a peck”. There were bushel hampers, ½ bushel hampers, and peck sizes. A bushel of peas has a different weight than a bushel of butterbeans, so to insure that you got a bushel, the purchase was usually weighed as well as measured in the proper container. Butterbeans usually settled down fairly tightly in the hamper but large peas could have a lot of air if not shaken down.
Once everything was in hampers, the hampers were loaded in the back of the truck, the canvas spread over them to prevent the stuff from blowing out. Water, sandwiches, stilliards and a few extra hampers were loaded in as well. In case you don’t know, stilliards were old devices for weighing most anything that could be attached and held up by two reasonably strong people. They were surprisingly accurate and no one argued with what they indicated. They would be used to verify the weight of the product when sold.
Once at the farmer’s market, you would get the shed manager to assign you a stall for the day. They usually had all of the peas in one group, the butter beans in another, and so on. Then, you waited for the market to come alive with buyers.
Early on, the local produce brokers would come through looking to fill their orders from restaurants, grocery stores, and packing houses. Sometimes they may buy your whole load. Others, some or none!
If they bought your whole load, you drove over, offloaded at their dock or they sent their truck over, weighed the product, got a check or cash and went home. Maybe, if you were lucky, you got a cup of vanilla ice cream on the way home. Maybe you’d repeat the process in the next day or so, depending on crop conditions.
If the brokers did not buy the whole load, you waited there as the individuals came through looking for fresh vegetables to take home and cook and can. You could get more money that way but you had to stay till the stuff was sold. You did not want to take it home!
During the time all of the vegetables are becoming ready and being picked, there was canning.
“Canning” was a little deceiving because a lot of the time the stuff was being stored in Ball jars but it was “canning”.
A large quantity of whatever was being “picked” was delivered to the back porch of my grandmother’s house. All of the large pans were rounded up and the aunts and cousins all started appearing. It was “shelling” time. Everyone would get a cut of the action.
We all got a pan of the “vegetable of the day” and went to shelling. And, shelling. And, shelling.
We shelled until there were pots and pans filled with the item to be canned. Then, out came the jars and lids and some special canning cookers. The lids and jars are sterilized, the vegetable blanched and the jars filled. They were cooked and the lids sealed and then everyone got some canned peas to put in the pantry. Freezers were not around yet. In fact, electricity wasn’t around until about 1946-47. But a jar of peas, properly sealed, would last a long time. This was a ritual that was repeated year after year. In a few cases, the FFA ran an actual canning operation at the high school and you could take your stuff there and get it canned for about 10₵ a can.
The canning process was repeated until every single item grown on the farm was stocked in the pantry to last until next year. I don’t think they ever ran out. You could find, in addition to vegetables; peaches, pears, figs, apples, blackberries, and jellies and jams. Most of the stuff in the jars was planted and grown right there on the farm. But there were a few items that were found growing wild that were in high demand, as well.
The rural farm folks also made most of their jellies and preserves. In some cases they had some of the items right in the yard. Apples, figs, pears and certain other fruits could be found in the yard or close to the house. Other items grew wild and often in fairly large quantities.
There were plums over in the big cluster in the field. They also could be found growing randomly beside the roads. These made great jelly. Grandmother and the aunts would gather them up, ignoring the warnings about rattle snakes!
The fields all had terraces and the terraces all had stuff growing on them. These were great habitat for quail to range in. Also, blackberries grew along these terraces in large quantities. And, likewise, they grew in many places along side of the country roads. There again, the ladies would all pile in a car and seek out all the places to gather in as many blackberries as possible. Then there were pies, cobbler and jams and jellies with a label that said “Blackberry, August 1948” on the lid. Modern farm practices did away with terraces, the vegetation that covered them and the blackberries and quail that could be found there.
A few people had “grape arbors” in the yard. That meant they had planted some muscadines or scuppernongs and allowed them to grow up over a latticework of wood strips. Scuppernongs and muscadines are both native grapes to Georgia but are often found hanging high up in some tall tree or up on a high bank beside the road. They still do today, even on Paces Ferry Road in Atlanta. But, they are largely ignored by the passersby, but not me! They have tremendous health benefits in the area of antioxidants and other derivatives and you can read a lot on the internet about all the beneficial qualities.
I have scoped out, while walking, several places that these grapes can be found and usually try to pluck a few at their peak of flavor. There are a lot over by the Chattahoochee River at the park. I have never seen anyone eat one over there but me. Why is that, do you suppose?
Often, muscadines are up high in the trees and would go largely unseen except that they tend to fall when they get ripe and pile up on the ground under the tree. Birds, possums, squirrels, and raccoons eat them. And, of course, so do some observant people who spot them.
Actually, some of the best ones will be on the ground because they have fully ripened and will have the sweet, succulent taste. I usually suggest that if you are picking them up off the ground that you may want to wipe them on your shirt or blouse to remove any possible contaminant and especially if dogs frequently walk through, if you get my drift. It would be best to avoid any that have had herbicide sprayed on them as the vines are often mistaken for ivy or kudzu by the un-enlightened.
I will say that there is nothing worse than biting into an unripe muscadine! Unless it might be a persimmon! That will turn your mouth inside out and turn you off from wanting another one. And eating a muscadine for the first time can be a daunting experience. There are instructions on state websites on how to properly eat a muscadine! Of course, a lot of people use them for wine as well as in jams and jellies.
For one thing, you have to be trained to properly eat wild grapes. (Muscadines) If you stop by Publix, you can get some grapes from who knows where in little zip lock bags. They have blue ones, white ones and red ones. All you have to do is open the bag and pop one in your mouth. Some may have seeds and some don’t. If they have the seeds, you learn to get those out of your mouth by spitting them out in your hand or on the ground. Sweet and delicious. You can easily eat the whole grape, peeling and all. Nice and neat…..except for spitting out the seeds.
A muscadine will usually have a tough outer skin. That skin has to be punctured to get to the sweet juice inside. Then, there is the pulp that has seeds in it. It is usually juicy and tasty. The outer skin is too tough for most to try to eat and is discarded.
I have learned how to pop the muscadine in my mouth, burst the outer skin, get the juice out, spit out the shell and then sort of use my tongue to press the seeds out of the pulp. Once they are out of the pulp, then you have to spit out the seeds before squeezing out the last bit of juice from the pulp and swallowing the pulp, if you desire. Spitting the seeds out in the woods by the river is not too bad. This is a little more delicate to pull off in the car or in the house and is probably something to avoid on your first date!
So you can see a little practice is required to properly eat and enjoy a muscadine. But once mastered, you will be the envy of every muscadine aficionado and just think how you can impress the kids. This could be used as entertainment at your next party. But, believe me, if you get your lips around some ripe muscadines, you’ll be hooked! I’ve got my eye on some now that have just started filling out with grapes. And, I’ll eat them off the ground or from the vine! Either way, they are good! My grandmother taught me that! And you don’t get a lot of human competition for them.