Friday, October 29, 2010

Connection at the Cotton Gin

As a chaperone on my son’s field trip, I had an experience yesterday that most people will never have. The preschool outing was to the Bostwick Cotton Gin in Bostwick, Georgia. This is the very same cotton gin that, so many years ago, my grandmother and her family relied on to remove the seeds from their freshly picked cotton. On our visit, the gin was running, the noise was almost intolerable, and cotton was swirling in the air like snow. I had two thoughts (besides keeping an eye on the few children that were around me). One was a new appreciation for the clothes on my back and the people who make those threads possible. The other was how hard Tom, my grandmother, and her family worked to get the bills paid and put food on the table.
Tom grew up a few miles from the gin and growing cotton was a way of life. The house, flanked by a row of pecan trees, still stands up on a hill. At first glance the farm looks eerily the same as when it I was a child.
The cotton had to be picked, loaded, and taken several miles down the road to the gin. We all complain about how hard our lives are today, but really. Compared to 80 years ago, we are all on permanent vacation.
My son, being 5 years old, can’t grasp the amazing fact that his great-grandmother quite possibly stood in the same spot and watched cotton emerge as a clean white bale, just as he did yesterday. I can, and I’m incredibly grateful for the few minutes we had to connect with our past.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Recipe That Almost Died

I have a passion for making recipes that my grandmother, Tom, cooked for our family. Tom and I documented her recipes during her late nineties (when she felt more like an average 70-year-old). But there is one recipe I never approached until now. I'm not sure why I almost let this recipe die with her. Maybe I was scared and maybe it was painful. My sweet, sweet grandmother died in January 2003. Two weeks ago was the first time I tasted her incredible Scuppernong Hull Pie since she’s been gone.

Her pie recipe was personal, distinct, historical, and only Tom had made this pie. The house I grew up in had a glorious scuppernong arbor in the backyard. It had been there for decades and the vine that emerged from the black soil was as large as my thigh. On warm fall afternoons, the sweet smell of the golden grapes filled even the screen porch when the breeze blew towards the house.

Fall always brought some long awaited pleasures. Most importantly, it ushered in the recipe that was worth waiting a year to taste. As children, my sister and I would help the grown-ups by taking empty bowls out to the arbor and fill them slowly, one little orb at a time. Each and every one of us picked the grapes for one purpose and one reason only. The pie.

I remembered the pie like my last bite was yesterday. The crust was flaky, tender, unsweetened and the perfect companion for the sugary filling. The hulls were overly sweet, with a tinge of sourness when they were crushed between my teeth. No pulp, no fancy stuff, just hulls and sugar.

A few weeks ago, I bit the bullet, sucked up my hesitation, and bought some scuppernongs. My parents sold the house we still call home, and unfortunately, the arbor went with it. I found some scuppernongs (a type of muscadine native to the South) from my local co-op. I pulled out Tom’s handwritten recipe from the safe-deposit box, made a copy that could get dirty, and got to work.

I knew no matter what, my pie would not be as good as the ones that Tom brought over, still warm from her oven. In the last two weeks, I have made the pie several times over, cried a few tears, purchased more and more scuppernongs, and missed Tom with each bite.

I not only satisfied a craving that was years in the making, but I also connected with the past and one of the most important people in my life. Pick up a family recipe and share.

Tom’s Scuppernong Hull Pie


8 cups (2 1/2 pounds) scuppernongs

2 cups sugar


2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup Crisco shortening

1/3 cup ice water

1 large egg, beaten

2 tablespoons water

To make the filling, place about 8 grapes at a time in a stockpot or deep mixing bowl. Use a potato masher to squeeze grapes, a few a time. The pulp (containing seeds) should be squeezed out. Transfer the hulls to a mixing bowl. Leave the pulp and any juice in the stockpot as you squeeze more grapes. Continue to mash all the grapes. You should have about 4 1/2 cups of hulls.

Pour the pulps and juice through a fine strainer. You should have about 1 cup of juice. Add enough water to the juice to make 2 cups. Reserve pulps for another use.

Combine the hulls, juice, and water in a clean stockpot over medium heat. Cook, covered, for 15 minutes.

Add sugar to the hull mixture. Simmer, uncovered, for 40 minutes. The hulls will look like preserves. The mixture will be thickened and syrupy. Remove from the heat and cool completely. The filling can be made up to one day ahead and stored covered in the refrigerator.

As the filling cools, make the piecrust. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the flour and salt together. Use a pastry blender to cut the shortening into the flour mixture. Sprinkle in ice water and stir just until all the flour is damp. Gather into two equal-sized mounds and wrap each mound in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Working with one mound at a time (leaving the other mound in the refrigerator) roll out dough on a floured surface to 12-inch round. Transfer to 9-inch glass pie dish. Trim the dough overhang to 1/2 inch. Pour the cooled filling into the crust. Roll out second dough mound on a floured surface to 12-inch round and place on top of the filling. Trim the edges to 1/2 inch. Press the edges of the dough together, fold edges under, and use 3 fingers to flute the edges.

Whisk together egg and 2 tablespoons of water. Brush the top crust lightly with egg mixture. Use a very sharp, small knife to cut slits in the center of the crust for the pie to vent.

Place pie on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the crust is browned, about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes: 1 (9 inch) pie

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