Fall Grapes and the Poor Man’s Banana

This week we’ve been practicing our wild food gathering skills on our evening walk. It’s an August ritual. All along the road we’ve started seeing muscadines, or “fall grapes” as the locals call them, ripe and ready for eating.

The Vikings named North America “Vineland,” and it’s easy to see why if you stop for a moment and look up into the edge of any wooded vacant lot or piedmont forest parcel. You can trace the dark brown, papery shafts of the vines up from the soil along the trunks into the canopy as they push up for light. Above your head you can make out the distinctive scalloped edges of the bright green muscadine vine leaves snarled among the limbs and foliage of maples, poplars, and oaks.

An easier way to spot a vertical muscadine patch is to look at the asphalt as you walk along. This time of year you’ll see the grapes in the ditches and on the shoulders of roads. Sometimes if the trees hang out they’ll be scattered all the way to the center line. Most will be mashed by passing cars or people, but if you look closely you’ll see enough ripe grapes to catch your interest and whet your appetite for wild fruit.

I’ll admit it takes a lot of gathering and an eye for habitat to get a handful of purple-skinned muscadines. It’s lots easier to go to Bi-Lo or the Fresh Market and buy a plastic bag of green seedless grapes, but there’s something wild and free about picking up a snack off the ground, biting a hole in the grape’s tough skin, sucking out the sweet pulp and spitting out the tiny black seeds.

It’s not the kind of fruit you’d want to sprinkle in when you mix up the chicken salad, or put in your kid’s lunch sack, but the flavor of a muscadine is worth the trouble. It’s a local snack food you’re sharing with the raccoons, possums, foxes, and yellow jackets.

This time of year when we leave the pavement and swing down by the creek is when the wild fruit gathering gets exotic and exciting. There’s a wild pawpaw patch along Lawson’s Fork. The trees enjoy the moisture of the flood plain and their presence casts an almost tropic feel to walking through the streamside forest.

Pawpaws are small trees, often not much more than a shrub really, never more than 30 or 40 feet tall. Their trunks are slender and silvery gray, and the wood has no commercial value for timber. A pawpaw looks a little like a droopy, loose-jointed magnolia. Sometimes they are so abundant they form a thicket. Other times they stand in twos and threes among the box elder and privet. Standing among them with their foot-long oblong leaves drooping in the dappled sunlight of the streamside, you’d swear you’re in Brazil or Costa Rica.

It’s the pawpaw fruit we love. In spring we watch the small dark flowers appear on the twigs and know soon the tasty fruit will follow. All summer we watch the dull green oblong berries grow bigger above, often two hanging side-by-side. By August they’ve grown into the shape of a small, green gourd and attained the length of a thumb. We watch daily and wait for them to drop, and we gather them quickly as all the flood plain’s fruit-loving creatures will want them as well.

It took a year or two to figure out that the fruit never turn any color besides dull green. When they hit the ground you just need to trust they’re ripe and bite a hole in the skin and suck all the sweet yellow pulp out, and sort the big shiny seeds with your tongue to spit back into the undergrowth. Pawpaws, like fall grapes, are not for the dainty eaters, the faint of heart about seeds and spitting.

You’re not likely to see pawpaws at the Farmer’s Market. The fruit’s perishable once it drops off the tree, and doesn’t travel well. It’s best to eat them where you find them, as often as you find them.

Several years after we discovered the pawpaw patch by the creek we grew ambitious. A bumper yield of pawpaws made it possible to bring a bag home and squeeze the yellow pulp out and separate the flat black seeds (like a persimmon), add a little orange juice and some ice, and blend the whole mess up for smoothies. “A poor man’s banana,” Betsy called them as we convinced our boys to give our concoction a try. The sipped and said they prefer real bananas, but I’m happy they can at least say in their boyhoods they ate off the land.

Some say a ripe pawpaw tastes more a mango, and I like that comparison since it summons that tropical touch that I associate with the leaves. There are many other more common wild fruits, berries, and nuts you could eat or prepare from the piedmont woods-the black cherry, the elderberry, the white mulberry, blackberries, persimmons-but the pawpaw is the one that always catches my wild food imagination this time of year.

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