Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family that loved to eat, but my most powerful childhood memories center around food. I don’t remember tearing into presents on Christmas morning. Instead, I recall shoveling down sausage biscuits and orange juice, and I smile when I think about how Uncle Bunk lost a tooth in his sausage one year, only to drop the incisor in his pocket and keep on eating. I remember spending entire summer days in the pool, conducting make-believe swim lessons and stopping only to eat the watermelon I had staged poolside. But my most powerful food memories hail from the muscadine.
Muscadines grow wild here and most of the older homes in Eastern Carolina have an impressive grape arbor in the backyard. For me they are just as much a part, if not more, of our region’s culinary fabric than whole hog barbecue, slaw and hushpuppies. Muscadines have a thick, chewy, tannic skin and more seeds than seem possible. It’s actually a fair amount of work getting to the goods of a muscadine, but I learned early how to best enjoy their pulp and juice. Howard family legend has it, my first word was “pop,” because Grandaddy Howard used to pop the foxy, sweet muscadine pulp in my mouth from the stem end of each grape. If the story is true, I assume I swallowed the seeds, but those are just details.
Muscadines ripen after watermelons have done their thing, sweet corn is long gone and butterbeans are resting in the “locker” for guest appearances at family gatherings. I associate grape popping with going back to school and a little nip in the morning air. But my specific and most vivid memory is of Uncle Bunk meeting me at the school bus, lumbering out to his grapevines in a worn out pick up, him handing me a shoebox and hoisting me onto his shoulders. From there I would pick and pop for as long as he could stand it. My chin would drip with the wild sweet syrup of too many grapes and my mouth itched from a reaction brought on by their tannic skin. But I did not care. The muscadine’s nectar was just too good to let a little rash stop me. By the end of it all, I had a wet shirt, a sticky neck, a red face and a swollen belly.
I loved the way that juice tasted. It was addictive and I think I understood, even then, the fleeting nature of that experience. Those are some good memories.