The Grapes Behind the House
Just about everybody in our village has grapes behind their house. We have our own little rows just beyond the barn and our daily walk takes us past a small vineyard. Our first house in Forestville backed up to that vineyard too. It was owned by a man named Pope and I never met him. But I knew his grapes. They would start as little green bunches and slowly grow bigger and fatter and bluer. To get to the Favorite Tree we would walk up the rows. We weren’t allowed to pick them or play in them.
I loved raisins. Someone told me that raisins came from grapes, so I snuck a bunch of green grapes from the vine as they seemed the right size. I put them in a can of water and nestled the can in the trash fire and waited. It never boiled. The grapes did not turn into raisins. I learned much later that 1) I had used the wrong type of grape, 2) you need raisin grapes not Concords, and 3) they are dried not boiled.
In the winter the boys all around would get a couple of weeks work trimming grapes and then pulling brush. The one required skill and knowledge; the other hard work, endurance and lots of layers of warm clothes. They could take off from school for this work.
We are right next to the lake plain. Our village is where the falls mark the edge of a shale outcropping. Some say that shale gives the grapes their special flavor. Drive up the hills and you will see the vineyard put in too high, where the spring late frosts or the fall early frost ruined the buds or the harvest. The rows are still there and the vines are growing wildly, with trees sticking up announcing the end of that vineyard story.
When the grapes are ripe everyone knows it. The rich smell permeates everything. These days great high machines straddle the rows, pick the grapes and sieve out the leaves and twigs. Trucks follow behind with the crates of purple wonder. But they used to be picked by hand. The women from our village and young people would go out and work. The skill was in knowing the next bunch you would pick and getting into a rhythm. I say this by observation only as I never got into the flow. It looked easy to me so I persuaded a grape farmer to give me a shot at joining the crew. The crates are huge. I was only halfway done with my first crate and my friends were about done with their second. The sun was hot, very hot. All of a sudden I keeled over. I woke up in the cool living room the the farmer’s house and learned I had suffered sunstroke. It proved to be the end of my grape picking days.
I think the farmers are amused at our little rows of Concord, Catawba and Niagara. One of them refers to our rows as the ‘back 40.’ We get help and advice. True taught Merv to trim. One farmer gave him some wire. Another helped Merv to string it. Merv likes growing grapes and I like making jam and pies out of them. Catawba grapes make a beautiful pink jelly that just demands a Victorian tea.
Even our little rows provide a generous harvest. I freeze some by popping out the center and pureeing the skins. I simmer the centers till the seeds free up and the I put the pulp through a Foley food mill to separate out the seeds. 3 or so cups make a nice pie filling. A cup or so is good in a fruit smoothie or mixed in with rhubarb for a colorful compote.
But right now I am going to take a jar of my grape jam and slather some on toast, and think, as everyone who grew up around here does, of the sweet Concord smell on a warm September day.