August 2014
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Grapes in the Ground

  The completed product after eight weeks in the hole.

Remembering Friendship Cakes and Muscadine Wine

It was one of those hot, muggy, Alabama days in August, and there were a few hundred square bales in the field that had to be loaded, hauled and stacked in the barn. It was my grandparents’ farm, and typically my two cousins, Edward and David, and I had the job of hauling the hay. We would take turns. One would drive the flatbed truck, one would throw on and the other would stack. Each load, we would rotate so every third time you could drive the truck and get a break. This worked fine for the first three loads, but soon we were overcome with thirst. We took a detour from the field to the barn and turned into the dirt drive at my grandparents’ house for a cool drink of anything that happened to be wet ranging from ice water to sweet tea.

My grandmother was not in the house. I thought, "Oh yeah, it’s Friday." Every Friday, my grandmother would go into town driving a green Caprice Classic Chevrolet, which was about as big as a typical farm pond. With the Piggly Wiggly sale paper in hand, she would stock up on enough groceries to last six months even though she would go again next week (she had lived through the Great Depression and dared not run out of canned vegetables and fruit even though they grew everything the grocery store had except bananas).

After eight weeks, remove the jar from the hole.  

Well, we were thirsty, and I was the first to open the fridge. I told Edward, "Hey Mama Howle’s got a big pitcher of fruit juice with fruit floating in it." We poured a tall glass each and began gulping down the concoction. Edward said, "This juice is rurnt." (That meant that the juice had ruined.) After drinking half my glass, I agreed, and we poured the rest down the drain and drank water out of the faucet. On the next load while stacking hay, I began to feel light headed and told Edward to take my place. He said he also felt a little queasy. We told the youngest, David, to stack since that was the job that had the most elevation on the truck.

That afternoon Mama Howle came wheeling that Caprice into the drive with a tornado of dust following behind. Shortly, she came back out of the house wanting to know who drank her friendship cake starter. I said I didn’t know. "All we drank was that rurnt fruit juice in the fridge."

This was the day I found out that friendship cake was made by first starting with a pile of fruit dumped in a pitcher and allowed to ferment. Well, that explained the light-headedness on the hay truck, and I deduced it was called friendship cake because everyone partaking probably felt friendly after eating and shouldn’t be allowed to stack hay on the top of the truck.

Over the years, I’ve heard of people doing creative things that allowed fruit to be fermented. One of the most original I’ve heard was making wine in a one-gallon pickle jar buried in the ground. After talking to a few elderly folks who said the method actually worked, I decided to try it.

  One gallon of muscadines resulted in 1.5 quarts of wine.

According to the word-of-mouth instructions, you take a clean, one-gallon pickle jar, and fill it to the top with freshly picked muscadines leaving enough head room to add sugar. Then, pour in one to two cups of sugar depending how sweet you want it. Next, screw the lid on tight and shake the jar vigorously to spread the sugar amongst the muscadines. You add no water. Simply add the grapes and sugar.

Next, take post hole diggers and dig a hole in the garden deep enough to completely bury the pickle jar at a depth where the jar lid will be about six to eight inches below the surface of the soil. Mark the spot where you buried the jar, and wait eight weeks. When eight weeks have passed, carefully remove the dirt with a hand trowel to avoid breaking the glass, and pull the jar out of the soil.

With a one-gallon jar filled with muscadines, about 1.5 quarts of wine is produced. During the fermentation and breakdown process of the grapes, the juice separates from the grapes and the sugar causes the fruit juice to ferment. I’m assuming being buried in the darkness of the soil keeps the concoction from turning to vinegar.

Pouring the mixture through cheesecloth will remove any tiny bits of debris that were floating during the fermentation process. The older gentleman who shared the recipe with me said he had been making muscadine wine this way for years and said his 93-year-old mother truly enjoys it.

I tried a small sample of the completed product, but we poured in three cups of sugar, but that made it so sweet it tasted more like something you would spread on a hot, buttered biscuit. I would think one cup of sugar would be sufficient.

Who knows, since that small batch of muscadine wine was so sweet, it might have made a great starter for friendship cakes.

John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.