Fondue for the Masses

Chances are if you’re an average middle-class sort, somewhere tucked away in a cabinet or closet you have a fondue pot and chances are as well that you’ve never used the damn thing and likely never will because you’re more likely to order out chicken wings or pick up a meat-and-cheese/vegetable tray from the local supermarket than go to the trouble of making anything on your own, especially something as weird and baffling as a fondue.

Fondue is (of course) a Swiss dish, likely begun by people of simple means with simple ingredients, cheeses and wine at its most basic. The French word fondue itself simply means ‘melted’. Most Swiss would agree that a proper fondue is made with a blend of cheeses–of gruyere, emmental, and a softer local cheese such as raclette or appenzell–white wine, a little kirsch, a spoonful of flour to prevent curdling, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and nothing else. Fonduta, the Italian version of fondue, is made with fontina cheese…There is also a similar Dutch dish called kaasdoop (cheese dip), which begs the question of why we insist on calling it fondue in the first place.

Trendy American cooks embraced fondue in the middle of the 20th century. The early recipes were startlingly elaborate—as were the fondue sets themselves—and included prescribed serving rituals as well as a warning against drinking cold beverages while consuming cheese fondue because the hot cheese would harden in the stomach and cause constipation. (It won’t.) Fashionable authors recommended using those long two-tined forks with the cute little colored knobs on the end to skewer the bread cubes, which is why colorful glazed fondue pots with matching forks were standard gifts at bridal showers and weddings. Many of you likely remember your mother’s fondue set in harvest gold and avocado green. The “canned heat” was typically Sterno brand. Fondues became quite popular because the ingredients were inexpensive and familiar; the equipment novel and within reach, and while most of us consider a fondue about the gayest thing you can serve at a party, it makes for a novel holiday dish (particularly New Year’s) and is actually quite good.

The following basic recipe is from Betty Crocker’s Dinner Parties: A Contemporary Guide to Easy Entertaining, [Golden Books: New York] 1970, 1974 (p. 55). I recommend you lightly toast the bread cubes.

Cheese Fondue

1 loaf French bread or 6 to 8 hard rolls
1 pound Swiss cheese
2 tablespoons flour
1 clove garlic
1 cup dry white wine (Rhine, Reisling, Chablis, Neuchatel)
2 tablspoons kirsch or sherry
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Dash white pepper

Cut bread into 1-inch cubes. Cut cheese into 1/4-inch cubes (about 4 cups). Sprinkle flour over cheese and toss until cheese is coated. Rub cut clove of garlic on bottom and side of ceramic fondue pot, heavy saucepan or chafing dish. Add wine; heat over medium heat just until bubbles rise to surface (do not allow wine to boil). Gradually stir in cheese, adding only 1/2 cup at a time and stirring after each addition until cheese is melted and blended. (Do not allow mixture to become too hot.) Stir in liqueur and seasoning. If fondue has been prepared on range, transfer fondue pot to source of heat at table and adjust heat to keep fondue just bubbling. Guests spear cubes of bread with long-handled forks and dip into cheese mixture. Stir fondue occaional. (If fondue becomes too thick, stir in about 1/2 cup warm white wine.) 4 servings.

Of Food and Fellowship

When Wyatt Cooper is mentioned at all now, it’s invariably in connection with his younger son Cooper Anderson, but Wyatt himself was a man of many parts, one of those being a damn fine writer. 

Cooper was born in Quitman, Mississippi, September 1, 1927. moved to New Orleans as a young child and in his twenties moved to New York City to pursue acting.

In his thirties, Cooper lived in Los Angeles, attended both UCLA and UC Berkeley, and worked as a screenwriter. While residing in West Hollywood, then an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, Cooper lived near Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell. A close friendship developed, and a year after Parker’s death in 1967, Cooper published an incisive and widely read profile in Esquire magazine, titled, “Whatever You Think Dorothy Parker Was Like, She Wasn’t”.

Cooper moved to Manhattan in the early 1960s, and worked there as a magazine editor. On December 24, 1963, he married heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, becoming her fourth husband. The photogenic couple frequently appeared on the national “best-dressed” list.[5] They had two sons: Carter Vanderbilt Cooper (1965-1988) and Anderson Cooper (b. 1967), who became a prominent CNN anchor. Wyatt Cooper wrote in his 1975 memoir, “It is in the family that we learn almost all we ever know of loving. In my sons’ youth, their promise, their possibilities, my stake in immortality is invested.” Wyatt Cooper died in Manhattan, New York City on January 5, 1978, at age 50, during open heart surgery, after having a heart attack the previous December.

This essay, “Of Food and Fellowship” appeared in Southern Sideboards the Junior League of Jackson’s landmark award-winning cookbook, which was first published in June, 1978.

 

Speak to me of food and what springs readily to my mind is not so much a recall of particular dishes I’ve relished, but a succession of images, sad and funny, sweet and tender, of people and places and happy occasions from the recent or long-gone past, a procession of dear, lost, familiar faces and voices, with the echo of laughter from other years. One remembers all those tables, some grand and richly laden, some humble and bearing simple fare, over which have flowed the talk, the tales, the exchanges that have made up the histories of our lives; the tables across which loving eyes have looked into loving eyes, and across which we have reached, friend to friend and spirit to spirit, to touch each other in precious communion. I think of vanishes loved ones and of absent friends and simpler times, of youth and joy and wonder, of those early seasons of first discoveries, the seasons in which we were blessed with Heaven’s gift for finding all the world’s delight in one bright Easter egg, all the world’s affection in one home-decorated birthday cake with our own particular name written bright upon it.

At those tables, a child, and later, the child in the adult, could watch and listen and learn. It was and would remain a place of adventure and exploration, a place where the curious eye and ear could partake of the rich store of other people’s experience, their adventures in the vast and mysterious world that waited and waits, beckoning but intimidating, outside the window; adventures, also, in those other, interior worlds of the mind, where thoughts, opinions, ideas were and are the exhilarating substance of the hungry brain.

Since our associations scurry quickly back to our beginnings, I find myself breathing deeply and knowing once again the romance and allure of the smells emanating from the kitchen of my first home, the warm, comforting aroma of biscuits baking or of coffee and bacon on cold mornings, with Mama beside the stove calling out that we must hurry.

I remember the family reunions with the piling on of food, an abundance and variety of offerings that represented God only knows how many accumulated hours of planning and preparing and packing, a feast to which more than twice our number could not have done justice. I remember the buzzing and bustling of the women crowed into Grandma’ kitchen, all full of importance and pride in marvels about to be revealed, each with her own specialty for which she was celebrated within the family—this one’s banana pudding, that one’s pineapple-upside-down cake. I think of Christmas with the smell of apples and oranges and fruit cakes and with turkeys and stuffing that make the mouth water forty years later.

I was born country, so I know all about frying just the right chickens because the preacher was coming to dinner and about all-day-singings-with-dinner-on-the-ground where heavy baskets and cardboard boxes were hauled out of the back end of family cars or even horse drawn wagons or buggies. The contents were spread proudly out, displayed like the golden wedding presents of princesses, set out upon glistening, freshly-starched and sun-dried linen cloths there would be much calling out to each other from families inviting others to try this or that from their bounty, while grabbing loose strays, especially bachelors, and there would be a scampering about of colt-legged boys, impatient and giggly while overly devout deacons went on too long at asking the blessing, when any sort of mumbled “. . . bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies . . .” would have done just as well.

I know about hog-killing time in the first sharp cool of fall, when the children were allowed to help with the scraping if they were careful to stay away from the scalding water I know about the way molasses was made, when you took turns feeding the cane into the grinder and remembered to duck each time the pole, pulled bumpily around and around by dull, plodding mules, made its way overhead again.

These activities were co-operative efforts; we didn’t do them by ourselves. Neighbors came together to help each other. We worked out the dates—Tuesday for the Longs, Thursday was the  Timmses’ turn, and Monday week was for us. The doing of it was all mixed up with community feeling, with jokes and gossip and catching up on news and horseplay and grown-up talk.

What I’ve been talking about, when you come down to it, is friendship, sharing, caring. I’m talking about love. To show our love for one another we devise little rituals. We beg the passing traveler to eat. We toast brides. We drink to each other’s health. We give dinners for those we seek to honor. There is a particular bond between friends who prepare food together, between friends who dine with each other. The breaking of bread together has, for many centuries, held something of a ceremonial significance for us.

It seems as if it were always so. It was in the Bible and in the earliest Greek plays and in the writings of Homer Obviously it goes way back. I should think that it must have been soon after they first came down from the trees and began improving their manners that one of our hairy ancestors must accidentally have dropped into the cave hearth the baby brontosaurus leg on which he’d been gnawing, or stumbled onto a succulent pig just roasted by a recent forest fire, and made the revolutionary discovery that the raw and natural stuff with which he’d been sustaining his life could be improved upon. On that distant red letter day a new art form was born and man took a giant step in the direction of Julia Child.

It seems to me that the invention of cooking must have made a considerable contribution toward the very process of civilization. Surely, Mr. and Mrs. Piltdown Erectus and their children, having found the new way of dining an enrichment of the cultural tone of their own household, must certainly have hastened to call in their neighbors to share the benefits of the revelations so happily and so accidentally bestowed upon them. Thus, on that evening of joyous and primitive grunting that then served as conversation, undoubtedly began the ancient and inseparable association between eating and hospitality, the eternal connection between food and fellowship.

I should mention somewhere along here that I was not invited to set down the few words of this preface because I can claim to be a passable practitioner of that noble science. The truth is I can’t cook. Anything. My instant coffee is barely acceptable even to me, and my peanut and butter sandwiches have repeatedly been rejected by my sons. “No thanks, Daddy,” they say with wistful politeness, “We’ll make our own. Alan Campbell once told me that before his wife, Dorothy Parker, would cook anything she’d go into the kitchen and eat raw bacon. In that category at least, Dotti and I were in the same league.

One of the saddest failures of my life was the time I tried to delight my little family, those underprivileged citizens of the pre-packaged, machine-made, and mass-produced age, with the home-made ice cream that is such a treasured memory from my youth. For years I’d tried to impart to them some idea of the magical creation of that frozen treat by describing how you break up the block of ice by putting it into a croker sack and beating it with the back of an ax, pack the crushed ice tightly around the metal can inside the wooden freezer, argue over who gets to turn the crank first, (several children should be involved; the making of ice cream calls for company; in a one-child family only the presence of grandparents could compensate for the absence of other children) and finally how everybody crowds around for the miraculous moment when the lid is reverently lifted off, and the creamy, vanilla colored, heavenly swirl of pure pleasure is revealed.

My sons were skeptical but willing, and so, one summer in Southampton, having consulted by long distance with my sister in Hartford, Connecticut, I bought a freezer, assembled the ingredients, and, while she instructed over the telephone, began mixing, stirring, and beating. I suspected early on that I was in trouble when it became perfectly clear to me that while Marie makes great ice cream herself, she has no very clear idea of how she does it, “. . . just put in some sugar; you’ll know when it’s enough . . .” –that kind of direction doesn’t help at all. Honest, it doesn’t. Not unless you can already do it. Or have talent. At one point I was cooking the mixture and it started turning into something that looked suspiciously like an omelet. “I hope you didn’t use too many eggs . . .” she said encouragingly. “Does it look too yellow?” Along about then I had more than a premonition of disaster. Also, for some reason, it overflowed while we were turning the crank, the yellow seeping out the sides and mixing with the ice. That wasn’t promising.

There’s no point in pretending there’s any suspense to this story or in prolonging it, so I’ll go strait to the finish. It looked beautiful, actually. The result of all my labor looked very clean and very pretty, but it had no taste at all so far as I could tell and I could not expect those little boys, however polite and loving they are, to pretend that it was worth bothering with. Oddly enough, my wife, who has a very discerning palate, liked my ice cream. She thought it tasted like real yogurt made with goat’s milk. Maybe if my sister has a recipe for yogurt I might end up with ice cream.

Recipes, anyway, have to be fleshed out, I suspect, with the cook’s own taste, personality and inspiration. Ethel Barrymore was once rehearsing a new play with an over-eager young director who kept instructing her with details, “Move to that table. Life the book, pause, and then look at it.” She endured this for a while, then she turned to him and said sweetly, “I know just what you mean. I lift the book, pause, and then look at it, and it is then that I do that special, unexplainable thing that causes audiences to come to see me and enables me to earn a thousand dollars a week.”  She made her point. With great cooks, as with great stars, there is that “special, unexplainable thing” that has to do with taste, authority, and uniqueness of personality, and the beginner, I should think, should be encouraged to trust his or her own particular instincts and exercise his or her own creativity.

In Saki’s short story, “The Blind Spot”, one character says, “the man is a common murderer,” and another replies, “A common murderer, perhaps, but a very uncommon cook.” This book contains the secrets of many very uncommon cooks, great stars, splendid artists of the kitchen; secrets, many of them, that have considerable histories, having been handed down, generation to generation, from one famous cook to another.

I am fascinated by the great variety of cooking styles assembled here, representing many different traditions and widely varying national origins. Some recipes remain pretty much as they were when Great-Grandma was finally persuaded to write them down, or when Cousin Jessica spied on some selfish and secretive cook and wrote down each step se took, each pinch of salt, each wave of the hand in the direction of the pot. Others have evolved through adaptation, experiments, and happy accidents. A few of them doubtless traveled south with the earliest settlers, moving along the Natchez Trace from Virginia, the Carolinas or Kentucky, personally watched over by the woman of the family, along with a treasured set of china, an ancestral portrait, a silver candlestick, or some other heirloom.

Outsiders tend to think of the South as all one thing, when, of course we know that our extraordinary diversity is one of our most attractive features. We have absorbed many things from many sources, and have made them our own. Take grits. Grits has (sic;jly), of late been mentioned in the news somewhat frequently as a native southern specialty, which it is. It is very native, indeed, sine it was given to us by the Indians, along with corn bread and many other things. Blacks have made a contribution that is hard to measure, for many black cooks have been among the nameless geniuses who’ve left the culinary art a better one for their having participated in it. The French and Spanish influence on cooking is very important in the South, and though New Orleans is most famous for it, excellent French and Creole restaurants are strung along The Mississippi Gulf Coast all the way to Mobile.

In the past couple of years I’ve traveled around my native Mississippi a great deal, and I’ve enjoyed everything from baked dove at the governor’s mansion to fried catfish and hush puppies in Vicksburg and stuffed breast of chicken in Natchez, from ham hocks and turnip greens in Meridian to sirloin steak in Columbus, hot tamales in Greenville, and Creole gumbo and soft shelled crabs in Biloxi. In West Point, Mayor Kenny Dill went out and picked blackberries and Mrs. Dill made them into pie for me. Who wouldn’t choose a blackberry pie over a key to the city?

Which brings me full circle and back to hospitality. My children are startled by the extraordinary lengths that Southerners go in order to make the visitor feel at home among them. Very often, when we have been guests in someone’s home, neighbors have rushed in to leave off (or sometimes simply leave out-side the door) a basket of yard eggs or fresh butter or vegetables taken from their gardens that morning.

How many times it has happened that after a speech I’ve found someone thrusting into my hands a container of home-made fudge or a jar of fig preserves, saying “Take these to Carter and Anderson,” or “I beg Gloria’s never had watermelon rind preserves,” and slipping away before I could get the names? I’ve even been presented with chitlin’s (or chitterlings, and the dictionary spells it) and though anybody who knows me can testify that I’ve always been proud of my farm background, in the matter of chitlin’s, born country or not, I didn’t know what they were and wasn’t too curious to find out. I guess somethings are just meant to be forgotten, but Idid appreciate the thought. (Though not enough, you understand, to confront my wife with the chitlin’s.)

Oh, just one more thing. A story about one of my great uncles—one of the Campbells, I think. Having lost his wife (by death, I mean; she wasn’t simply misplaced) he was looking around for a replacement and in mentioning the most desired qualification, he made the following obsertion:

“The huggin’ and kissin’ don’t last forever. The cookin’ do.”

French Market Bean Soup

Somewhere among the cuneiform tablets found scattered around Ur there’s bound to be a bean soup recipe, and likely soups using multiple varieties of dried beans have been around almost as long. This particular recipe is comparatively quite recent—it’s only been around about as long as I have, which dates it to around the time Sputnik was launched—and its connection to New Orleans’ French Market is likely speculative at best. But it is a rich, hearty winter soup, and much of its appeal is that it lends itself to gift packaging. You can easily combine these dried beans and parcel them out in jars to give away over the holidays.

A typical recipe calls for one pound each of navy beans, pinto beans, split green and yellow peas, black-eyed peas, lentils, both baby and large limas, black beans, red beans, Great Northerns, soybeans and barley pearls, but you can use whatever combination you like, the more the merrier, and a variety of colors is a plus. Divide your bean mixture into 2 cup (about a pound) gift packages, cloth sacks or jars, whichever you find most attractive. Including a couple of bay leaves in each portion is a nice touch.

You’ll also want to include the recipe: For 2 cups beans (and 2 bay leaves), place in a heavy pot with 2 quarts water, a ham joint or hock–some people use a smoked turkey neck or tail–a large onion chopped, about a cup of chopped celery and a hot pepper or two. Now, a lot of recipes will tell you to add a can of chopped tomatoes at this point, but don’t; if you do, your beans will take forever to cook. Bring to a boil and simmer until beans are soft, adding water if needed. Remove meat from bone, chop and add back to the pot. Add tomatoes now if you like along with a clove of garlic or two (crushed and minced) little thyme and basil, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with cornbread or French bread.

Kool-Aid Pickles

So I’m checking out at Froogle’s, and I hold up a jar of pickles and two packs of cherry Kool-Aid to my girls Meshaun and Lorita who are sitting in the motorized shopping carts up next to the front door and say, “Guess what I’m making?”

They look at one another like, “This fool don’t know what he’s doing,” and tell me first that I don’t have the right kind of Kool-Aid “You gotta use Tropical Punch” that no, you do not use the pickle juice in the jar, that you dump that out and make a quart of Kool-Aid with two packs of mix and one cup of sugar, that you shouldna’ bought whole pickles cause now you gotta slice them in half and that no, you do not need to heat it up, just pour the tropical punch in there and put it in the refrigerator for a few days and that’s all you do you big dummy.

Taste like Sweet Tarts, yes they do.

Herb-Roasted Rutabagas

The rutabaga is a mutant; it has 38 chromosomes while other turnips have 20. Some say it’s a cross between a cabbage and a turnip that originated in Bohemia in the seventeenth century, but where the hell they came up with that goes largely unexplained by any account. Rutabagas are milder and sweeter than other turnips, and you’ll find them in the supermarket coated in wax to keep them from drying out, which they do more readily than other root vegetables. This simple recipe is a wonderful alternative to the usual mashed “swedes” with enough butter to gag Paula you’ll find on a lot of cool-weather tables.

One large rutabaga, peeled and cubed into more or less bite-sized pieces, will serve four people easily. Coat the pieces in oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper and granulated garlic, and bake them at 350 tossing or turning occasionally to brown evenly. When they’re just tender through, dust with dried herbs—sage, rosemary, marjoram, basil, rosemary or a combination—and continue cooking until done through. These are even more delicious the day after.

Pimento Cheese Pizza

While most all of us eat pimento cheese year-round on some type of bread, likely its eaten cold as a spread, a snack or a light lunch item. This recipe brings pimento cheese into football season and beyond not only as a great party recipe, but also as a cold night nosh for a family.

You can use a prepared pizza crust, but I implore you to learn how to make a simple pizza crust; it’s not hard at all, and there are dozens of recipes available using nothing more than flour, yeast, water and olive oil. With a homemade crust, you can adjust the thickness to your tastes and add whatever herbs and cheeses you like to it instead of what some dingbat in a test kitchen thinks you like. Using a homemade crust, roll out your dough—I like mine on the thin side—and crimp the edges. Cover the crust with thin slices of tomato that have been drained between paper towels; slice tomatoes, place between layers of paper towels and press to leach out seeds and jelly. Dust the tomato layer with grated Parmesan cheese and a bit of that ubiquitous Italian seasoning blend.

As to the pimento and cheese, friends and neighbors, I wish I could tell you that you can use store-bought or even your homemade recipe, but if you do, you’re going to end up with a greasy, runny mess because the mayonnaise will separate in the oven. Instead, toss mild grated cheddar with drained diced pimentos—I dice the roasted red peppers you can buy in a jar—diced white onions and shaved ham. Yes, you can use bacon but make sure it’s lean. I wouldn’t range too far afield in toppings—no anchovies!—but it’s your pizza, and you can put any damn thing you want on it. Spread pimento cheese mixture over the tomatoes, dust with Parmesan and bake on the middle rack at 450 for about 15 minutes.

Hosford’s Apple Cookies

While digging a well for Mrs. Mary Allison, a widow from New Orleans who moved to Way, Mississippi in 1899, Parson Hargon discovered a plentiful source of mineral water, and in time a popular resort named Allison’s Wells grew up around the spring. Initially offering only medicinal baths and drinks (and those for men only), the spa eventually added a hotel and restaurant (La Font) with a grand ballroom that in time also hosted the Mississippi Art Colony. Allison’s Wells was destroyed by fire in 1963

In 1981, proprietor Hosford Fontaine—doubtless at the urgings of countless friends—published Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa, a treasure-trove of history, profiles of the people who kept the resort functioning as well as other unforgettable characters, musicians and of course artists such as Till Caldwell, Inez Wallace, Ted Faires, Marie Hull and others. Many of these people contributed to the illustrations which are augmented by dozens of charming vintage photos including a poignant image of Hosford standing amid the charred ruins. But best of all—from my standpoint in the kitchen—The Last Mississippi Spa also includes a sprawling section on recipes for almost anything to put on the table: hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, dressings, breads, meats, seafood, vegetables, breakfast and brunch dishes, desserts, candy and cookies, all “tried and true” from the La Font kitchens.

You don’t see many Southern apple cookie recipes; a quick scan of Southern Sideboards, Bayou Cuisine, River Road Recipes, Vintage Vicksburg, Gourmet of the Delta, The Jackson Cookbook and The Mississippi Cookbook turned up nary a one. Though the South has a native crab apple, the Old World apple species that produce what Emerson called “the American fruit” simply don’t do well in our climate and fruit from those that do are most often dried or made into pies or sauce. As to the kind of apples to use, that’s up to you. I used Galas because they’re pretty.

The original recipe calls for a cup of margarine, but I’ve substituted butter because it just flat-out tastes better. I suspect Hosford used margarine for the sake of economy, but then a lot of women of her generation used margarine because it was considered upscale, being “store bought” and all. I used white raisins because you’ll find different shades of fruit in a box of white raisins while others are uniformly dark, and I used pecans because they go so well with apples in any recipe.

About 3 apples, enough to make 3 cups of fine unpeeled dice; (use only pieces with skin so that when baked they’ll stay somewhat firm)
2 sticks butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
A half teaspoon each ground cloves, nutmeg and salt
2 cups rolled oats
¼ cup white raisins
¼ cup chopped pecans (or nuts of your choice)

Cream butter and sugars well, add eggs and flour mixed and sifted with spices and baking powder, then stir in apples, oats and nuts. Refrigerate dough for about 30 minutes, stirring once. Form dough into ping pong balls, and bake on a lightly oiled cookie sheet with parchment paper at 350 or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack.This recipe makes about three dozen wonderful, chewy, sticky cookies.

Vanilla Lemonade

An elegant riff on an eternal favorite, vanilla lemonade adds a gracious touch to any summer soiree, the perfect companion for a plate of ginger snaps or sugar cookies. If you’re already accustomed to making lemonade properly, with a simple syrup rather than raw granulated sugar, then it’s nothing more than a simple variant. And according to correspondent Dan Vimes, the addition of Cat Head vodka doesn’t diminish the subtle flavor and enhances its consumption.

Combine one cup white sugar and one cup water in a small saucepan along with the sliced peel of one lemon (juice the lemon first, then pare the peel). Bring to a quick boil, just enough to dissolve the sugar, then reduce the heat, add a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract and let it simmer for several minutes. If you can get them, two vanilla beans can be used instead, in which case you will have to strain the syrup, but it’s well worth the effort. Add this syrup to six cups of water along with about a cup of fresh strained lemon juice or to taste and keep in a sealed container until ready to pour over ice and serve.

Muscadine Or Scuppernong?

It’s late summer; the exhausting heat lingering and September’s drought is setting in, but on a bright note, our native grapes are beginning to appear in markets. These aubergine and bronzy green globes are a little bit pricey, often going for as much as $5 (but usually more like $3) a quart, but to me they’re worth it. These grapes have a thick skin and rind–they’re actually chewy–but when you bit into them, you get an explosion of sweet, sharp flavor.

North America has two native grape species, Vitis labrusa, often called the fox or possum grape, and Vitis roundifolia, which most people call a muscadine. While the wild fruit of both species is edible, the fruit of cultivated varieties of vastly superior. Naturally, both species are widely used for making wines, which are most often cloyingly sweet and best used as an aperitif or digestif. The name muscadine comes from its similarity to early settlers with the Muscat grape, a Mediterranean type used in making muscatel, both words deriving from the musky scent of the fruit.

Muscadines come in a variety of colors, but there are two basic color types: the black or purple and the bronze. “Scuppernong” is the name of the first muscadine cultivar, a cultivar being a variety of plant that is created or selected for cultivation. This “white” (most types are a light greenish) was so named because of its discovery along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. Interestingly (and surprisingly) the original mother vine is still on Roanoke Island, where it has been growing and producing for several hundred years. Because scuppernongs are such an early variety of muscadines, scuppernong entered common usage to refer to any bronze/green/”white” muscadine grape even though botanical correctness dictates that “Scuppernong” should only designate the cultivar and not all such color types.

You can use muscadines and scuppernongs as you might any berry: in pies and cobblers, muffins, jams and jellies, but because their fresh taste is so incredibly wonderful, I recommend that you simply keep a bowl  on the kitchen table for a quick little nosh during the season.

Ice Cream Bread

Versions of this recipe have been bouncing around a lot recently, most of them praising its fool-proof simplicity, but as with such recipes—and one with two ingredients is about as basic as they come—the devil is in the details. Most versions call for 1 ½ cups of self-rising (“hot rise”) flour and a pint of melted ice cream—which make make a soft, sticky dough rather than a batter—baked in a standard 8×5 loaf pan at 350 for 45 minutes, but I’ve found that the recipe makes a much better presentation when baked in a 5×3 (16 oz.) loaf or a similarly-sized spring-form baker at 350 for only 35 minutes. I’ve also found that you must use a very rich ice cream such as a French vanilla or (as in this case) a butter pecan and that LuVel works just as well if not better than Ben & Jerry’s, but you must let the ice cream melt slowly on the kitchen counter or in the refrigerator overnight; don’t put it in the microwave or it will be “flat”. These cute little loaves serve six adults easily, slice into eighths for kids, and while a dollop of whipped cream might seem more appropriate, I don’t think a scoop of vanilla ice cream is redundant at all.