Before the city of Livonia was the epicenter of Detroit’s western suburban sprawl in the late 50s, it was a farmland. Its schools were new, and its two-lane roads in pretty rough shape from a decade plus of frantic construction traffic.
Livonia, like many cities in America, was growing up.
My family moved to Livonia from Dearborn in exactly that time. I was only a youngster, full of energy and ready to explore my new world.
Everywhere up and down my street and throughout my subdivision there were basements being dug, wood framing being erected and new roads being graded. It seemed that there wasn’t a day that first summer that you couldn’t hear the sound of carpenters’ hammers and saws and smell freshly laid asphalt.
Not everywhere, however.
Blocks away from my new home, many farmers still held on to their land, unwilling to give in to the so-named “suits,” those city-dwelling land developers hell bent on turning Livonia into an urban oasis of strip malls and newly emerging fast food joints.
I was just a kid. I really didn’t think much about farms, or gardens or even food for that matter. When it was time to eat, my mom let me know.
My first years in Livonia, I spent most of my time gathering scrap lumber and nails from the nearby homes being built and creating all sorts of amazing structures in my backyard, everything from tree forts to rocket ships.
Life was good.
Eating was something to do between projects, but it was also my introduction to the ever ready, quick for mom to make PB&J sandwich. It was quick fuel for a kid on the go.
But just what was this purple stuff? It was sweet and delicious, and it made the peanut butter (which I’d never really cared for on celery) almost bearable to eat.
That fall, when nearly every home in the neighborhood had been built and my local supply of lumber dwindled to a few odd boards and crooked nails, I ventured out even further away from home to forage for building materials deep in farm country, the not-too-distant land of pumpkin patches, apple trees and other assorted things growing out of the ground that my friends said lay just over the horizon.
PB&J in hand, (unannounced to my mom), I set out one Saturday morning to explore this “New World,” knowing full well it was slightly outside my parental-imposed neighborhood boundary.
As I emerged from the dense woods separating the new homes from the farmland beyond, I noticed a long hedge separating two plots of freshly tilled land.
Or I thought it was a hedge.
Upon closer examination, there were these purple “berries” handing in tight clusters.
As a kid, I never stopped to think about whether something was safe to eat or not. My instinct was, if it’s in a farmer’s field, it’s edible. I also never stopped to think about whether it was mine to take. I was just sampling, or at least that was going to be my story if I got caught.
I sampled and tasted something familiar, but it took a moment for my brain to process what my taste buds were sending it. I didn’t know that what I was eating were Concord Grapes; my brain only processed it as “J.”
Now, two simultaneous epiphanies were going on in my head. First and foremost was the thought that this was the flavor of my peanut butter’s sandwich partner, and second, that THIS was actually the REAL flavor of “grape” as a kid knows it.
The flavor associated with purple.
Until then, I had no idea where the flavor of “grape” came from because NO green, red or black table grape that I had ever tried tasted like “grape”. THIS was the flavor of my popsicles, my gum, my suckers.
Concord grapes WERE grape!
Unfortunately, like a bear caught with his hand in the honey jar, when I returned home with purple-stained fingers, my mother asked the inevitable adult question (because sometimes, a kid is too dumb to realize his hands are not the same color that he left home with).
“Why are your hands purple?” she asked.
There were a WHOLE lot of things wrong with my answer, not the least of which was that I knew darned well I had been light years beyond my neighborhood without permission. Using the excuse of sampling didn’t help my case either.
The takeaway (literally) was:
1). If you’re going to lie, check your hands for incriminating evidence first.
2). Asking for permission might actually be better than begging for forgiveness. (I’m still struggling with that one.)
3) Always tell your mom you’ve snuck a bunch of Concord Grapes in your jeans pocket before she puts them in the wash. (It wasn’t pretty…)
I learned a lot of lessons that day, but in spite of being grounded back then, Concord grapes have always reminded me of fall and some of the best days of my youth.
I’m now older (and wiser), but I still make a batch of Concord Grape Jelly as homage to my love of the REAL taste of grape. If you’d like to do the same, they’ll only be around until mid-October, so now is the time!
Here is my recipe. It’s the classic Kraft® original.
Concord Grape Jelly
3-1/2 lb. Concord Grapes (Yielding 5 Cups of juice)
1 ½ cups Water
1 box SURE-JELL Fruit Pectin
½ tsp. Butter or Margarine
7 cups Granulated Sugar
- Bring boiling-water canner, half-full with water, to simmer.
- Wash jars and screw bands in hot soapy water; rinse with warm water. Pour boiling water over flat lids in saucepan off the heat. Let stand in hot water until ready to use. Drain well before filling.
- Stem and crush grapes thoroughly, one layer at a time. Place in large saucepan; add water. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 10 min., stirring occasionally.
- Place 3 layers of damp cheesecloth or jelly bag in large bowl. Pour prepared fruit into cheesecloth. Tie cheesecloth closed; hang and let drip into bowl until dripping stops. Press gently.
- Measure exactly 5 cups of prepared juice into 6- or 8-qt. saucepot.
- Stir pectin into juice in saucepot. Add butter to reduce foaming. Bring mixture to full rolling boil (a boil that doesn’t stop bubbling when stirred) on high heat, stirring constantly.
- Stir in sugar.
- Return to full rolling boil and boil exactly 1 min., stirring constantly.
- Remove from heat. Skim off any foam with metal spoon.
- Ladle immediately into prepared jars, filling to within 1/4 inch of tops. Wipe jar rims and threads.
- Cover with 2-piece lids. Screw bands tightly. Place jars on elevated rack in canner. Lower rack into canner. (Water must cover jars by 1 to 2 inches. Add boiling water, if necessary.) Cover; bring water to gentle boil.
- Process 5 min. Remove jars and place upright on towel to cool completely. After jars cool, check seals by pressing middle of lid with finger. (If lid springs back, lid is not sealed and refrigeration is necessary.)