The Secret Recipe
This weekend is the Grape Festival in Silver Creek. We are surrounded by vineyards and that most intoxicating time of the year is upon us. Go into anyone’s back yard and the sweet smell of Concords ripening on the vine will envelope you, taking you back to every peanut butter and (grape) jelly sandwich you ever had, to every grape you snuck from the grower’s vineyard and popped into your mouth. The Grape Festival celebrates the event. For the Deborah Circle, the Grape Festival is the time when everyone makes a pie or 2, or 24 or more, and brings them to join all the other pies in the Grape Pie Sale. The way they have for 50 years now.
I got a letter 50 years ago from Mom and Dad. They wrote that they were making grape pies. I was puzzled. I hadn’t heard of a grape pie, and I wasn’t sure Mom and Dad had ever made any kind of pie. Mom wasn’t a pie maker. Dad REALLY wasn’t a pie maker. They had been asked. By a woman of such moral stature that you couldn’t say no to her. She had taught school. She had taught Sunday School. She called. She asked. They agreed.
When Merv and I moved back a few years ago I joined the Deborah Circle. The Circle manages the grape pie making now. The preparations begin the year before, when the grapes are picked in October. The date is set when the grapes are ripe. We prepare the church kitchen the night before. We roll builders paper to cover the counters and the floor and secure it with painters tape. The farmer brings the great crates of grapes to the kitchen door of the church in the morning. A volunteer crew from the church takes huge colanders from under the kitchen islands, and washes them. Grapes fill gallon metal bowls and the labor begins. Take a grape, squeeze the pulp free into one bowl, put the skin in another bowl, and the stems and leaves in a third.
Most of the volunteer grape poppers retired a long time ago. Many had vineyards. The vineyard stories are worth the popping just for themselves. Dago red wine, sold out of kitchen doors, the fall jobs of picking that the women of the villages around here would fill, the spraying, the trimming, the pulling of the brush, boys in layer after layer of winter wear, ending in old hooded sweatshirts, and in the cold February days, the acrid smell of that burning brush. Looking around the table, remembering the hands not there now.
The hands there now are frail. The same woman who has cooked the pulp for 50 years will carefully stir the pot, simmering just till the seeds free up and the pulp turns translucent. She is in her late 90's but you would never know it. She walks several miles a day and never sits down. She stirs and watches, and stirs some more, and calls everyone dear, so we all listen to her. Retired teachers, bankers, accountants, grape farmers, pop grapes and talk, easy conversations that come when the work is long and repetitive.
Gallons of pulp get sieved, a long and fraught process that involves an ancient kitchen aid attachment with a bar that circles the pulp and the seeds around the sieve. A team of women work with the skins and a blender. The goal is to blend them, but not liquefy them. They know what they are looking for. Cup for cup the pulp and the skins are measured, along with flour, sugar, lemon juice, and the secret ingredient. 2 and 1/2 cups get measured into a plastic bag, which is bagged again and sealed. A freezer in the old manse receives the bags of grape pie filling, looking for all the world like a stash of emergency vittles for a vampire. The freezer is locked. Till the Grape Festival.
Grape Pie from the 1964 edition of ‘The Joy of Cooking'
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Stem 4 cups blue grapes. Slip the pulp out of the skins. Reserve the skins. Cook the pulp until the seeds loosen. Press through a colander to remove seeds, combine the pulp, the skins, and 3/4 cup sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon grated orange rind, 1 tablespoon quick cooking tapioca. Permit these ingredients to stand for 15 minutes. Prepare any pie crust. Fill the shell with the grape mixture and form a lattice of pastry over the top. Bake the pie for 10 minutes at 450 degrees, lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake for about 20 minutes more.
Of course I have not given you the secret recipe.