I tuck my head and hands behind wide leaves that shade me from the morning sun. There, clusters of dewy shining orbs, in shades from gray-purple to lavender-red, droop from their vines. It’s grape season, and these are what we’ve been waiting for: Concords, ripe for picking.
Grape season in Naples, New York, means different things to different people. For some it merely ushers in a time of lengthening shadows, shorter days and bright fall colors. The season debuts with the Grape Festival’s crowds of visitors and artisans and closes with the final leaf-peepers. For those involved in the juicy pulp of the harvest, it means picking grapes, slipping skins, or making world-famous grape pies. For me, it is all about grapes, from the first fruits to the sales of flaky-crusted pies.
From picking to slipping
The picking begins early in the day. After I take my children to school, I grab a straw cowboy hat, pull the short pruning shears from my glove box and head down a long vineyard row where several orange trays are waiting on a wooden table. I push up vines and begin to steadily clip as I chat with the farm’s matron, an 87-year-old woman who has been working with all sorts of berries her whole life.
We all pick quickly as the sun grows hot overhead, only slowing to debate the ripeness of a particular spot. “Are these grapes too green?” “Are they too red?” I taste test along the way, sucking on skins, often crunching the seeds whole in my mouth. Midmorning bells chime out a hymn from the St. Januarius Catholic Church across the road, which is also fittingly called The Shrine of Our Lady of the Grapes. As I glance up from the vineyard to the forested hills of Hi Tor, I imagine being transported back in time or to another country across the sea. But this is the Finger Lakes region with provincial beauty in all its finest. No ancient ruins required.
Sometimes I talk incessantly with a picking partner; maybe I’ll sing or hum. Eventually we all reach a place in tune with the symmetry of the vineyards, the rise of the hills, the sweetness of the grapes, and an occasional birdsong over the lull of traffic along Route 21. We are silent, bent to the task at hand and fully immersed in just being.
School gets out mid-afternoon and I leave work in time to pick up my children. On these hotter autumn days we go to Grimes Glen to cool off. The children and I splash in the creek or climb a waterfall before we head home from town.
Although my hands are sore, I stop at Pie Making Mania Central where a dear friend is working on her porch pouring five-gallon buckets of cooked grape pie goop into a sieve to remove seeds. After the goop is clean of seeds, she mixes the steaming mess back in with the skins to give the pie its traditional color. It all smells wonderful.
My friend varies the amount of sugar she adds based on the amount of sugar content, or “brix,” the grapes already have (Concords typically have a 16-brix count when ripe). Her final test, however, involves an actual taste. She asks me to sample a batch and see if it needs any more sweetness. I like the sweet-and-tart flavor and smile back to her. It is perfect.
I take two 28-pound trays of grapes (maybe some of the same I picked today) along with six large buckets and pack them into the back of my Subaru. Tonight I will pinch grapes. Grape pinching, or “slipping,” involves popping out the grape innards from the skin in just such a way that it doesn’t go shooting across the room, but rather makes a nice “pling” sound as it hits the inside of the bucket. I pinch a bunch as fast as my little grape-stained fingers can go until I have a palm-full of skins and a bucket of slowly rising grape guts. I drop the skins in a separate bowl and grab a fresh bunch of grapes, while making sure the skins are clean of stems and seeds. I repeat the process at least another 200 times, or so it seems. Because I get paid by the tray and not the hour, I try to go as fast as possible.
It takes me between two and four hours to completely slip a tray. Not great timing, really. I’m told that some of the local woman can pinch a tray in 45 minutes flat. I’m dumbfounded. How could that be possible? I pinch as fast as I can! I’m beginning to think this is some John Henry story, or maybe these ladies have figured out a secret method involving stomping on grapes in a child’s wading pool.
In the late afternoon I slip a tray of grapes out on the front porch with my 5-year-old daughter. I figure if she starts now, she’ll be an all-star grape pincher by the time she’s a teen, and she’ll have a sizable seasonal income to start saving for college, or maybe a pie shop.
After the kids are in bed I drape a tablecloth over the sofa table and begin a second tray. It’s a long day and getting longer. If I don’t finish the tray before bedtime, I’ll have to get up at 5 a.m. and finish it before my morning chores. The week goes on like this. Only 12 more days until Grape Festival.
I slip one more tray on Saturday, my day off. I spend Sunday helping box and sell pies at a stand on the corners of Main Street and County Road 36. The pie stand has a comfortable awning and big purple signs that advertise “Jeni’s Pies: 3-Time Winner.” I must admit, it really is the best grape pie I’ve ever tasted. It has a slightly sugared top crust with just the right amount of filling, a gentle tartness that leaves only a subtle impression, and that fresh, sweet aroma of Concord grapes.
Selling pies is like a day off for me. After all, I’m not the one who spent weeks cooking up all that pie filling, made all that crust, and got up long before dawn this morning to make fresh pies for the day, rolling out about one pie every three minutes and baking them 16 at a time in double ovens. Selling pies this time of autumn, on such a fine sunny day, is a charming activity. Later in the season, I will likely contend with freezing rain and winds that threaten to blow open all the pie boxes and roll the tent down Main Street with me inside.
A woman in a T-shirt and shorts comes to the stand. “Nine dollars!” she says. “For a grape pie?”
I begin to tell her how these really are winning pies and how the stores sell pies for more. She shrugs her shoulders and says she’ll purchase a cheaper one someplace else. “It’s easier,” she adds.
Easier? I wonder what could ever make a home-baked, handmade grape pie easier? There are vineyards to tend and manage, picking to be done in the fields, tray upon tray of grapes to pinch, grape innards to cook, goop to strain, batches of filling to mix just right, pie dough to make and roll out and bake, boxes to stamp and fold. And they are all baked fresh in slightly modified home kitchens. It is slow food, made by the effort of farmers, pickers, pinchers and bakers.
To me, the pies – and the season – are priceless.
story by Angela Cannon-Crothers, illustrations by Darryl Abraham
In addition to reporting for the Naples Record, writer Angela Cannon-Crothers has completed a contemporary novel, The Wildcrafter, available at Jeni’s Pie stands. Her nonfiction story about working in atmospheric science is featured in the book, A Mile in Her Boots: Women Who Work in the Wilds, published by Solas Pres.
Naples native Darryl Abraham is a nationally recognized artist who works in wood, clay, lost wax, metal and paint. His creations are permanently displayed in Tokyo, New York, Philadelphia and at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.