It was always a contest to see who could find the first one.
I’m sure Daddy would just pretend like he hadn’t seen the dark purple jewels dangling directly over my head when I ecstatically made my find known and stood tall in my saddle trying to reach the long-awaited fruit of the vine. Just in case our labors were less productive, he would always pick a pocketful for my sister and me. Like all true Southern gentlemen, he let us have the first bite. We then proceeded to alternate feeding our faces with the choice ones and generously offering the insect-damaged ones to the ponies.
Oh the intoxicating taste of the muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia)! Somewhere between summer and fall, this fruit offers the best of both worlds with a flavor that no man can replicate.
This wild grape is God’s way of reminding your taste buds that they are alive and well and have important work to do. Still, this woodland treat demands a little respect before it will allow itself to be enjoyed. A greedy grape grabber will likely encounter a few fruits that aren’t exactly ready for human consumption. The super tart tingle will let you know immediately that you plucked one that wasn’t ripe. On the other hand, the patient, observant taster carefully chooses the somewhat shriveled, sun-kissed fruits barely hanging on the vine. These are the ones that will make even the most timid consumer climb on top of the pickup cab to shake the vines violently, begging for more.
Every Southerner has his or her own muscadine-eating style. The first step is to break the leathery outer layer that encloses the blissful victual. My personal style is to wedge the muscadine between my teeth and the inside of my cheek and then bite down with just the right amount of pressure, allowing the seal to break and the divine wild grape juice to burst through a small hole and into my mouth. After savoring the liquid, you have the option of disposing of the seeds, pulp and skin in whatever order you choose. I usually work out the seeds first (watching where I spit), chew on the pulp, and then suck the remaining juice from the flattened skin before sending it airborne. Though labor intensive, this process of consumption is well worthy of the reward.
For the truly ambitious muscadine aficionado, locating the loaded vines is the first step toward a more communal enjoyment of the fruit in the form of muscadine preserves, jelly and jam.Plus, anyone who’s ever sampled muscadine wine will tell you the intoxication factor is heightened when you try to tame the wild grape in a bottle.
If you need another reason to munch on a muscadine, your natural desire to consume these sinfully sweet fruits is actually beneficial to your health. As one of nature's richest sources of polyphenolic antioxidants, muscadines have been the target of research for effectiveness against cancer. Before you get too spit-happy with your grape, you might also want to know that muscadine skins and pulp are an excellent source of dietary fiber, essential minerals and carbohydrates.
Search your neck of the woods for a sun-kissed opening. Follow the heart-shaped, serrated-edged leaves to the dark purple cluster just begging for your careful selection. Celebrate the end of summer with the best forest fare around.