Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How About That Pecan Pie!

Have you ever entered a pie-making contest? When the pecan pie that I made was voted “best” at work, I was surprised because so many good cooks had entered with their favorites. How did I win? Creating a winning pie is just like playing baseball – avoid three strikes and you should find yourself in position to score. Making a pie itself is easy. The critical steps (all potential strikes) are deciding that you want to win, keeping the recipe simple, and showing up early.

First, decide if you really want to compete or only participate. When the contest was announced, I knew that I wanted to participate – if only to taste all the other entries. However, if I was going to complete all the effort for the contest, I wanted to do more than just participate. Because I had to make a “winning” pie, determining which pie to make was easy. Skip the fluffy and creamy ones. Pick a traditional sweet pie that evokes memories of good times with families, particularly at holidays, such as a pecan pie that is very traditional at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and you are guaranteed to receive a lot of votes.

Next, keep it simple – advice that works for almost every situation. For pie-making, use a proven recipe. To make a pie from scratch, according to Carl Sagan, the American astronomer, “you must first create the universe.” Not feeling like a scientist the night before the contest, I knew that I didn’t want to create a complicated concoction with many ingredients that would compete for attention. Just focus on the basics: sugar and butter. With a pecan pie, the lightly browned pecans on top catch everyone’s eye, and the gooey base sweetened with the right amount of corn syrup guarantees to produce a captivating taste and texture.

Finally, bring the pie early to the contest and insist that everyone take a small taste (even before the contest begins). The first impression scores high, and then the other arrivals are compared to yours. When you bring a pie to a contest, don’t be bashful. Jump right in and take a bite with everyone else and then begin to sample all the other entries. Don’t be a late entry, and never show up as the last entry when all the participants have made up their minds about which entry is the best.

Being ready for a contest also requires more preparation than just making a pie. Show up hungry. You don’t want to be tasting pies on a full stomach, and once you find one or two pies that you like, you might even want to take an extra piece and skip the next meal. In fact, at the next meal, start right. Because food contests prove that pies are our best menu choice, follow the advice of American writer Ernestine Ulmer: “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”

For those who want the recipe:Recipe: The pecan pie recipe that I used is by Mama Dip (she has made it on ABC’s program Good Morning, America) – and it’s simple:
1 stick butter (or margarine)
1 cup sugar
1 cup light Karo syrup
3 eggs beaten
1 cup chopped pecans
1 unbaked 9” pie shell
Directions: Preheat over to 350 degrees. In a sauce pan, melt the butter but don’t let it brown. Mix in sugar and corn syrup and cook stirring over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Stir in eggs. Mix well. Stir in pecans. Pour into the pie and bake for 1 hour until firm. Serves 8.

P.S. Oh, yes, after you win the contest, enjoy wearing your crown.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Finding Muscadine Magic

Who in their right minds would travel several hours to attend a muscadine festival? The muscadine grape -- famed ingredient in southern wines, pies, and jellies – is again reclaiming its rightful place in food traditions of the American South. Although muscadine festivals are few and “far between,” the best one can be found in North Carolina.

North Carolina Connection

North Carolina, home of the 400-year-old scuppernong “mother vine,” has been celebrating the muscadine annually in late September. The 2010 festival was the sixth consecutive one and offered cooking contests, amateur wine-making competitions, music and dancing, arts and crafts, and educational seminars, but the main attraction was wine tasting because more than twenty wineries participated. Imagine going from one winemaker to another all afternoon (and evening) and getting your palate satisfied. Not just limited to established wineries of eastern North Carolina, the festival also included new ones from the Piedmont as well as South Carolina.

Held in the small town of Kenansville less than 200 miles from the “mother vine” that is reputed to be the oldest cultivated grapevine in the world, the festival showcases the grape that has a distinct fruity or “musky” aroma. Because its juice is sweet with a light taste and aroma, the muscadine, which is native to the U.S. Southeast, is very popular with cooks and winemakers.

Cultivated for centuries, the muscadine, which includes several varieties (including the well-know scuppernong that is bronze and discovered originally growing in the wild), has an extensive history. Native Americans preserved it as dried fruit. In the 1500s Spanish settlements in Florida made large quantities of muscadine wine, according to report of Captain John Hawkins in 1565. In North Carolina the muscadine has had a long prominent presence and was even noted by Sir Walter Raleigh after the Florentine explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano, while exploring the Cape Fear River Valley in 1524, had written in his logbook that many “vines [were] growing naturally there.” In fact, the N.C. General Assembly designated the scuppernong, the first muscadine grape cultivated in America, as the official state fruit in 2001. Popular with many because they are so healthy, muscadines contain antioxidants in skins, seed, pulp, juice, and wine and contain more antioxidants than any other type of grape.

Kenansville is an appropriate venue for the festival, a two-day event on the last Friday and Saturday in September. The county seat of Duplin County, Kenansville is a small town of just over 1,000 and was settled in 1735 by immigrants from Northern Ireland and Swiss Germans from Switzerland. The home of the festival is the Duplin County Events Center, which is across the highway from James Sprunt Community College, the only community college in North Carolina that offers a viticulture and enology technology program that focuses on the muscadine grape. Its students prepare for careers in vineyards, wineries, garden center, greenhouses, and related sales activities. (The college’s students won first place in the muscadine blush category in 2009.)

Wine Tasting
The most prominent winery at the festival is Duplin Winery of Rose Hill, N.C. With a tank capacity of over 1 million gallons, it is the largest winery in the South. In fact, it is the largest muscadine winery in the world and produces over 300,000 cases of wine annually. Its wines are excellent, and I enjoyed tasting them. In addition, like many vendors, Duplin Winery offers more than just muscadine wines.

Another prominent eastern N.C. winery is Vineyards on the Scuppernong in Columbia, NC, only a few miles from the Outer Banks. With muscadines grown in Tyrrell County, its tasting room in a restored brick building on the banks of the Scuppernong River, which flows into the Albemarle Sound, seems like the perfect setting for tasting wines that are so much a part of the region’s history. Muscadines were found on a farm in Tyrrell County by Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition, and early settlers who moved into the area discovered the famous scuppernong grapes growing near this river. They are native to the area and since have been exported to all areas of the southern states of the United States.

Although connected to the coastal areas, muscadines are not limited to this region, and muscadine vineyards are springing up throughout the state as I found in making the rounds for tasting:
  • Locklear Vineyard and Winery of Maxton, NC, which promotes itself as one of the first Native American wineries and vineyards in the United States, was officially formed in 2006, although it has been bottling fruits from its vines for three decades and has slowly expanded from a half acre operation in 2003.
  • Its neighbor, Stephens Vineyard & Winery of Lumberton, offers the traditional red muscadine and white scuppernong wines with other specialties, such as green apple, blackberry, blueberry, and peach.
  • The Cloer Family Vineyards, which opened in 2010 in Apex, proves that muscadines have also arrived in the Triangle. Its red muscadine wine was very “noble.”
  • Old North State Winery in historic downtown Mount Airy is part of the developing Yadkin Valley wine region. Using vineyards established on farms that have been in owners’ families for generations, the winery is in a renovated 1890’s mercantile building and produces excellent dry, semi-sweet, and sweet wines.
The Muscadine

Thriving in hot, humid and dry conditions, fresh muscadines are usually found from late August through early October. They are well adapted to locations in the South where temperatures stay above 10 degrees F. (Major damage occurs when winter temperatures drop below 0.) Found at roadside markets, vineyards, and grocery stores, muscadines should not be washed until ready to use. If stored in a covered, shallow container in the refrigerator, they can usually keep up to a week.

(Because muscadines have thick skins and contain seeds, eating them requires a brief lesson: First, hold a grape with the stem scar up. Next bite or squeeze the grape into your mouth. The pulp and juice will burst through the skin into your mouth. Then savor the fruity flavor -- but be careful to avoid chewing the bitter skin. Spit out the skin and seeds if you wish -- or simply swallow them as some people do.)

Other Festival Events

In addition to wine tasting, the festival features more than ten hours of live beach music. The educational seminars on Saturday morning include a variety of topics, such as muscadine cultivars, cooking with muscadines, and vines in the backyard.

The cooking contest requires that all entries include a minimum of one cup of muscadine grapes. The wine-making contest has several categories: muscadine red, muscadine white, muscadine blush, and blend, fruit or other. Judging is on color, clarity, and flavor. The winemaking contest is limited to amateurs (no commercial wineries can participate).

Other States

Although the N.C. festival is superior, know that other states are also celebrating the muscadine:

  • The Muscadine Jubilee in Pelahatchie, Miss., occurs in mid-September and has been held for over 25 years. These folks know how to plan. The festival starts with a prayer breakfast and includes a grape stomp. The rules are strict: No stink bombs, guns, or obscene materials can be displayed or sold.
  • The folks in McMahan’s Cove, Alabama, have doubled their pleasure by combining muscadines and moonshine. Their Moonshine and Muscadine Festival is a life-affirming celebration to remember five friends who tragically died in the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, New York, in 1996. The first festival was held in the October after the disaster, and since then it has generated more than $60,000 in college scholarships. Usually held on the first Saturday in October, the festival is now “on vacation” but may return again soon.
  • In South Carolina, the Williams Muscadine Vineyard and Farm has held a festival annually on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend since 2004. Located in Nesmith, SC, the farm showcases operations of an old African-American farm with old plows and farm tools. A centerpiece is the eighty-year-old farmhouse where twenty members of the Rev. Gabriel and Mary Williams family lived.
  • In Georgia, Meinhardt Vineyards & Winery, the first winery in southeast Georgia, holds its Grape Stomp and Muscadine Festival each September.
Y’all Come and Taste

Come to Kenansville in September and taste the juices of the children of the mother vine, which now cover half an acre on Roanoke Island. It’s worth the drive to Duplin County, and tasting history makes it very enjoyable.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Spitting Watermelon Seeds

The most Southern of all sports in the hot days of summer has to be watermelon-seed spitting, with all due respects to swimming and car racing. Although grown in more than 40 states, the watermelon is especially associated with the South, the home of champion seed spitters.

Because of the region’s heat and humidity, most Southerners have a special relationship with the watermelon beyond cooling us off and keeping us hydrated during the final dog days of summer. At family reunions or church picnics, cold watermelon slices frequently prove more tempting than fried chicken or the favored aunt’s casserole.

In the days before energy drinks and the ubiquitous water bottle, the naturally refreshing watermelon was the choice for staying energized and hydrated. And eating watermelon virtually requires seed spitting. Seed-spitting contests are popular, whether they’re for family bragging rights or national television publicity.

Who has the record for spitting a melon seed? Obviously, the answer has to be a Southerner. Set in 1995 by Texan Jason Schayot, the Guinness world record is 75 feet 2 inches.

The World Championship of Watermelon-Seed Spitting is claimed by the folks in Luling, Texas (home of the previous champion). At the town’s annual Watermelon Thump, seed spitting is serious business. A prize as high as $1,000 awaits the record breaker. Even ESPN has covered the event. Contestants often warm up to chants such as: “Come on everybody, take a look, (insert name) gonna spit into the record book.”

Our state celebrates the watermelon all summer, although events peak in July (Watermelon Month for North Carolina) at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, where seed spitting is one of the contests. Our watermelon queen’s skills for spitting seeds are usually impressive, sometimes more so than the male contestants’. The 2007 queen propelled a seed 23 feet.

Because of seed spitting, most of us think of watermelon as the fruit loaded with thin, black, minute projectiles ready to splat against a cousin’s face or get lost in a pretty girl’s blouse. However, as The New York Times recently reported, most growers are focusing on seedless watermelons. “Only about 2 of every 10 sold in the United States have seeds.” The seedless picnic melon, which began flooding stores in the 1980s, now dominates the market.

The seedless variety also seems to receive preferential treatment, with prominent displays in the grocery stores, but savvy shoppers wander until they find the ones marked seeded. A good bite of watermelon always gathers a few choice seeds.

Let’s continue the tradition: Spit watermelon seeds, and hope that next year on Labor Day the traditional melon is still available. We need to keep the seed of competition alive.

Note: This posting was published originally as “Top Seed in a Summer Sport” in The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) on Aug. 4, 2010 (page A15).