story and photos by James P. Hughes
Any first-time discovery of a regional specialty food involves tasting, testing, and theorizing. Is it good? Is it uncommon? Is it memorable? Local pride rises to the forefront of any discussion with background history (sometimes a bit hazy), analysis (often varying with the purveyor) and satisfaction with each positive response.
Grape pie is one of those rare regional treats. While it may occasionally pop up in a remote location, the accepted historical and legendary home of this tasty item is Naples, New York, in the heart of the Finger Lakes Region. Amidst rolling hills draped with vineyards, Naples is proud indeed of its noteworthy, delectable and gooey pastry. The picturesque community stands as the self-proclaimed “Grape Pie Capital of the World.” From the annual Naples Grape Festival to purple-painted fire hydrants, the village celebrates the Concord grape and creation of its curious confection.
What does it take to make a great grape pie?
Generally, an ample supply of Concord grapes, creativity, experience and patience – a great deal of patience. Whether working from a home kitchen or a larger area converted to a “pie kitchen,” it’s an intensive and time-consuming process. First, grape pulp must be popped (or “slipped”) from the skins. The pulp is cooked down and then all seeds are strained from it. Combining the skins and other ingredients with the steaming pulp adds flavor and color to what will become the grape pie’s aromatic, “goop-like” filling.
Who markets the grape pie?
Many trace its inception to the Redwood Restaurant on Cohocton Street in Naples. There in the early 1960s, owner Al Hodges collaborated with neighbor Irene Bouchard to prepare and serve the quirky dessert to customers. For decades, local businesses like Monica’s Pies, Cindy’s Pies and Jeni’s Pies have thrived by not only producing these grape delicacies, but an array of related products as well, all unique and tempting. Other folks market their own versions at local farm stands or community events, and even from the friendliness of a front porch.
Who makes the best grape pie?
That depends. Each baker has established personal methods to tweak and enhance the product. In turn, every consumer may have a favorite, hinging on key factors such as sweetness, tartness, crust, appearance, texture, flavor, etc. Most agree that the tasting and testing process alone is an adventure – challenging and fun!
Monica Schenk, one of Naples’ popular piemakers, offers insights into this unique industry.
• As regional tastes began to favor white wines, a surplus of Concords led to the evolution of grape pie marketing from “honor system” roadside tables to full-scale production.
• Appreciating the difficulties involved in making a great product, local grape piemakers in the close-knit community offer each other support when needed.
• Family involvement is critical to overcome time-consuming essentials, including picking grapes, popping skins, cooking pulp, blending pie dough, folding boxes, promotion, sales and deliveries.
• Nostalgic former residents needing a “fix” often drop by, and curious travelers appear just to sample this flaky treat for the first time.
• Extensive freezing of the filling allows grape pie baking and availability year-round, not just in season.
• Over the years, the “art” of piemaking has spread to other grape varieties –and multiple products.
Schenk certainly understands the challenges of the process; she’s been in the business for almost four decades. Handling multiple tons of grapes per year and baking thousands of grape pies annually is a lot of work. But as one humorist insists, “Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie!”
While Naples is a fine spot to visit during any season, autumn may be a bit special – a time when hillsides are ablaze with color and there’s a crispness in the air. It’s then that the annual Naples Grape Festival takes place, celebrating the seasonal grape harvest with arts, crafts, music and, of course, ample food and wine. The gala’s signature event is the World’s Greatest Grape Pie Contest, an opportunity where bakers – from the aspiring to the accomplished – can compete before an esteemed panel of judges. The 2021 festival will take place September 25-26, a perfect opportunity to enjoy the festivities and take home some memories – along with at least a grape pie or two.