Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What the heck is that? Muscadine

Suddenly they are everywhere.  Well, maybe not everywhere, but at a lot of places.  

Could muscadines, aka swamp grapes, be the Next Big Produce Thing?

Here are some muscadines at a produce stand in the South Bronx. 

Surrounded by fruit stand mainstays like bananas, strawberries and oranges, and Latino neighborhood mainstays like papayas, plantains and two kinds of avocados (one of which, the large tasteless green kind, labeled "Domin" for Dominican, perhaps a slander) were the muscadines: small purplish fruit, a bit smaller and rounder than Damson or Italian Prune plums in the primo real estate of the center square. 

I have also been seeing muscadines all over Chinatown. Here they are at one stand in Chinatown, next to longans, grapes and starfruit.

 And here they are at Sarah's Fruit Stand in Union Square.

I have a poor track record of produce prognostication - that is, guessing which obscure produce items will cross over. I wouldn't have plucked muscadines off the chorus line.

Muscadines are grapes that are native to the United States, specifically its hot, swampy South, where most grape varieties would plead uncle. They are a fruit with many nicknames, including "America's first grape." Sir Walter Raleigh described muscadines in glowing terms way back in 1584 when he encountered them growing along the Outer Banks in 1584. Southerners have been making jellies, sauces and - most importantly - wine, ever since.

Muscadines grow in clusters, but the clusters are much looser than the tight bunches of other grapes. 

They are harvested one by one, not in bunches. And they are big by grape standards, so it's easy to mistake them for small plums, as you would for the fruit in the opening photo.

Photo credit: grapeseedextract.com
Muscadines, like most deeply colored fruit, have impressive antioxidant levels, and are especially high in resveratrol and ellagic acid. M.D. Journals (special Carolinas edition, natch) says, "A single 1 cup serving of muscadine grapes would more than double the average person's antioxidant intake." This could explain some of the fruit's newfound popularity. In the South, there is also a certain folk celebration of the fruit in the South, especially for old-time muscadine hull pies and wine.

On the "con" side, however, are two inescapable attributes: seeds and thick skins. In this country, seeds are generally considered a nuisance by most fruit consumers (and the corporations that predict and shape consumers' behavior). When was the last time you saw watermelon with seeds, for example?

Thick skin is a different matter: even though I have no quarrel with baked potato and kabocha peels, I am annoyed by the muscadines' thick skins. (I'm pretty tolerant of seeds). But muscadine lovers work around the problem.

Ozzy of Sarah's fruit stand is one enthusiast. "I love them!" he said. His technique is to bite into the muscadine and suck out the pulp, which he then discards. He doesn't mind the seeds, but as he says, "I'm Turkish, so I don't think fruit shouldn't have seeds."

He throws out the skins, but as muscadines grow in popularity, I imagine a secondary market for the discarded skins. Added to smoothies for the nutritional power? Harnessed for agricultural disease resistance? Organic clothing dye? Touted addition to makeup and shampoos?

Or maybe it's just time to bake up some extra muscadine hull pie.

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