I’ve been blessed to have the chance to move around a little bit in this great country of ours and see a bit of the world. Although I’ve lived in rural Western New York longer than I have anywhere else, I was born a Michigan girl and I believe I’ll always identify myself as a Michigander. There are, however, a few moments where I’m close to claiming that New Yorker moniker.
It probably comes as no surprise that most of those moments are surrounding food; beef on weck, white hots, wings, salt potatoes and grape pie. Grape pie was -perhaps- the biggest revelation of all of those quintessential New York foods. Made of Concord grapes, it retains that highly perfumed, heady scent that fires up instant salivation. It’s the smell that every grape soda and candy in the history of soda and candy has tried and failed to capture. There’s something about those fresh Concord grapes that makes my brain absolutely swim with joy. It is pure autumn.
New York is carpeted with vineyards and u-pick grape farms. If you drive through the right area of the state with your windows down in September you will smell that distinctive aroma. The perfume drifting across the countryside combined with the Crayola-tinged leaves and the brisk air is a clear indicator that the season has turned.
Grape pie is a food I used to wait for every single year. That is until I learned to make and can my own grape pie filling. Why this hasn’t caught on commercially is beyond me. Grape pie is tart and sweet, juicy and velvety, with the soft, simmered grape skins providing body and texture. It’s a little high on the labour side, when you’re used to just tossing berries into a pot with sugar and Clear Jel, but part of the initial joy of the grape pie is the experience of sitting in a circle around two big pots on the front porch slipping the skins from the grapes two at a time. Holding a grape in each hand, we laugh as we gently squeeze the juicy insides into one pot and deposit the grape skins in the other. Maybe it takes us a half an hour? Maybe an hour? Time has a mind of its own with a mug of whatever gets you out of bed in the morning -coffee or tea- wedged between your feet and enjoying that weather and each others’ company so thoroughly.
Into the kitchen with the pots… the grape guts simmer until the seeds come free and then are poured through a colander to filter out the pesky seeds. The remaining pulp and juice go into the pot with the skins and just enough sugar, a little lemon juice or citric acid and some Clear Jeland bubble away ’til boiling and thick. Fill the jars, wipe the rims, add the lids and tenderly lower those jars into the canner. When they’ve processed, wipe them clean, label them and put them on the shelves for mid-winter attacks of grape pie cravings coupled with reminiscences of autumn splendor.
And geez. Don’t feel obliged to make pies only. Grape pie filling transforms into a lovely cake filling or ice cream topping. You wouldn’t be too far amiss spreading it on a sandwich and I certainly wouldn’t judge if you made turnovers or ‘jam’ filled cookies with it.
When it’s time for the fabled pie you ease your favourite crust into a pie plate, open a jar of the royal purple filling and empty it in. Crimp the edges, cut a few vents in whatever style dings your chimes…
The trickiest part of the whole process comes right now. It’s the waiting; waiting for the pie to bake, then waiting for the pie to cool, then waiting that seemingly interminable wait for that wedge of fragrant, sweet, caramelized-sugar dusted crust to be delivered to your hands.
In the end, it is all worth it; it delivers on all of the tantalizing promises of scent and vision. Every second of what sweet torturous anticipation was worth it when your fork drops into a flaky pie crust surrounding thickened, silky grape juice surrounding tender grape skins. Lips and teeth and tongues are stained purple like your finger tips were months earlier when you put up the pie filling. These are the moments that hook you on canning.