by Paula Marcoux.
Here in southeastern Massachusetts, fall bring a bonanza of grapes. Wild grapes, domestic grapes, feral grapes: they perfume the sunshine, bow the arbors, stain the roads, attract the yellowjackets, and often, sadly, go unharvested. The earliest European visitors to these shores noted the presence of native grapes with joy, not because they were such avid fruit lovers, but due to the vine’s longtime track record as a reliable provider of alcohol. Fermentation trials quickly proved that, yes, wine could be made, but not the kind you’d want to actually drink.
In 1643, Roger Williams mentioned sampling wine made of grapes (and strawberries! Take that, Boone’s Farm!) by the English, but somehow that trend seems to have never gotten beyond early market-testing among the most depraved. Would-be vintners tried everything to get “that foxy flavor”—endemic to the cool-tolerant American grape—out of the wine, but eventually gave up on that, as they did on similarly desperate maneuvers to brew “beer” out of pumpkins. Within a couple of decades, as apples imported from Europe thrived here, and after the English invaded the Spanish Caribbean and commandeered the sugar trade, cider and rum assumed the responsibility for inebriating New England for the next two centuries. What wine was consumed was imported from Europe and the Atlantic Islands.
A revolution among gardeners and farmers in the nineteenth century brought a new wave of interest in grapes for the arbors and tables of New Englanders. Reports from the early days of the Marshfield Fair reveal lively competition for best in show, including a special category for grapes “grown under glass.” These were table grapes, not wine grapes, but conveniently by this time a record number of folks, especially the upstanding sorts who were exhibiting fruit, poultry, and doilies at the agricultural fair, had hardened their hearts against the consumption of alcohol. These cultivated grapes were meant to be savored au naturel, baked into the occasional pie, or, using a new preservation technology imported from Europe, put up in jars.
By the 1870s, enterprising American companies like Ball and Mason had nicked the work of nationalistic European food scientists who had spent the previous decades inventing better ways to provision huge armies in the interest of destroying the entire continent. Once translated into the American domestic sphere, their crowning achievement, the vacuum jar, triggered a tidal wave of chowchow and jelly across the land as it ushered in the era of home canning.
And these coinciding situations—bounteous fruit and a new mode of preservation—bring us to today’s recipe, Spiced Grapes from Ruth, a gem found in a Plymouth notebook kept from around 1860 to 1900 by Frona Spooner. Frona got the recipe from Ruth Spooner Baker, her friend and neighbor. In her own manuscript notebook, Ruth attributes this recipe to her mother, Zilpha Harlow Spooner.