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SCUPPERNONGS AND MUSCADINES

September 25, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of these agencies. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Miracle Hill Rescue Mission, 189 North Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29301, (864) 583-1628.

Our son-in-law, Jason, came home the other day with a bag of huge grapes he found at the grocery store. Jay grew up on an Illinois farm. He knows a lot about growing good things to eat, but these bulbous dark grapes were a mystery to him.  

“I’m not sure what these are, but they were so unusual, I thought we should try them.”  The large fruits were purple-black muscadines.  

When we think of grapes, we usually think of varieties imported from European or South American countries.  But North America also has its own native grapes. They grew wild long before Europeans settled these shores. In fact, some have speculated that the reason the first Norse explorers called North America Vineland was the Vikings had discovered these grapes. Though it is doubtful since their visit seems to have been limited to what is now Newfoundland. These North American grapes are indigenous to the Southern climes.

Early colonists were amazed by the abundance of grapes growing on the East Coast. Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, when exploring the Carolinas for Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584, described the American landscape as, “so full of grapes that in all the world the like abundance is not to be found.”

The grapes that these men discovered were Muscadine Scuppernongs. Wine made from them was sent as a gift to Queen Elizabeth I. Later colonists were required to cultivate native grapes. The fruit was used to make jelly, jam, juice, and wine.

 I remember picking scuppernongs as a boy from a vine in my grandparents’ backyard. On a trip to the Lowcountry of South Carolina, my grandmother, Mammy, dug up the plant from her childhood home. Pappy built an arbor using rough heart pine lumber. I recall plucking the fruit right off the vine with my Uncle Wesley. Eleven years older than I, Uncle Wesley taught me to suck the sweet pulp from the large grapes and spit out the husk and the seeds. There was a drawback. Yellowjackets swarmed around the fruit that hung from the vines as well as the scuppernongs that had fallen to the ground. The stinging insects were attracted to the sweetness much as we were.

In 1980, when Clare and I moved into the house built by my grandfather in 1937, we inherited the enormous scuppernong vine. The old arbor still supported the plant. The main vine was nearly three feet in circumference. Branches, pruned many times over the years, stretched to more than ten feet over the arbor and draped to the ground. In the fall, the vine was covered with delicious wild grapes, just as it had been in my youth. Some in the family called it a muscadine; others a scuppernong. Some neighbors mixed the two words calling the grapes scuffadines. It was, in fact, a scuppernong, a true native Carolina plant.

Before Clare and I added fencing to our property, we often saw total strangers standing beneath the vine, buckets in hand, gathering the sweet wild grapes. Our attitude was that there was more than enough of the fruit for everybody to share.

Last Saturday morning, I stopped by Bellew’s Market. On a table, near the back of the store, I saw the most luscious Southern grapes I had seen in a long time. The plump bronze scuppernongs and glistening black muscadines were grown locally. The fruit is primarily for home use, though there are many small farmers who produce the grapes commercially.

When early European explorers landed on the Atlantic coast, the bronze or purple-black fruit was growing profusely throughout what is now the southeastern United States. The name scuppernong is from the Algonquian word ascopo, meaning sweet tree. The Native Americans of the southeast enjoyed the grapes long before Europeans entered this land. The Scuppernong River in Eastern North Carolina is named for the vines growing along its banks.

Florentine explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano first mentioned a white grape in an entry written in a logbook while his party explored the Cape Fear River Valley in 1524. He wrote about the “many vines growing naturally there.”  In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh described these wild grapes as being “on the sand and on the green soil, on the hills as on the plains, as well as on every little shrub … also climbing towards the tops of tall cedars.”

In 1585, Governor Ralph Lane, when describing North Carolina to Sir Walter Raleigh, stated that “We have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven, so abounding with sweet trees that bring rich and pleasant grapes of such greatness, yet wild, as France, Spain, nor Italy hath no greater…”.

Scuppernongs were first cultivated during the 17th century, particularly in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. The oldest grapevine in the world is a 400-year-old scuppernong growing on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.  Known as the Mother Vine, it is growing in the backyard of a private home.

The scuppernong is the state fruit of North Carolina. It is mentioned in the North Carolina official state toast.

Here’s to the land of the cotton bloom white,

Where the scuppernong perfumes the breeze at night,

Where the soft southern moss and jessamine mate,

 ‘Neath the murmuring pines of the Old North State!

What is the difference between a muscadine and a scuppernong? Many people consider any bronze muscadine to be a scuppernong, but that is not true.  All scuppernongs are muscadines, but not all muscadines are scuppernongs. The muscadine is a broad category of grape that includes many varieties of both bronze and black fruit. The scuppernong is a large variety of muscadine. It is usually a greenish or bronze color.

 Both bronze and dark varieties mature in late summer and early fall. They have worked their way into the culinary repertoire of the South in the form of jams, jellies, fruit butter, pies, juice, and especially wine. I found a recipe for Kirk’s muscadine wine on the internet. Good name but a different Kirk. I am unable to vouch for his wine.

For the last several Christmases we have received a jar of homemade scuppernong jelly from good friends. Our grandchildren make short work of the delicious treat.

Muscadines contain significant amounts of resveratrol, the same compound found in red and white wines so often touted as an agent for lowering cholesterol levels and the risk of coronary heart disease.

Relatively drought tolerant, the muscadine grows best in areas where temperatures don’t drop below zero degrees.

Three winters after we moved to Spartanburg a sudden freeze plummeted temperature to ten degrees below zero in the Upstate. Sap was still in the trunk of our elderly scuppernong. The sap froze, splitting the trunk into pieces.

The arbor remains, but no fruit grows there. Though the original vine planted by my grandmother is gone, many offspring have survived. Last week I found a few of the large grapes dangling from a vine clinging to a fence. I plucked the fruit and washed it with the garden hose. I crushed the grape in my mouth, savoring the pulp and spitting out the husk and the seeds. I enjoyed the same sweet taste I remember so well from my childhood.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

TALKING WITH THE ANGELS

September 18, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of these agencies. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to The Charles Lea Center, a nonprofit agency serving over 1,400 Spartanburg County residents with disabilities and special needs. 1905 Burdette Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29307, (864) 585-0322, http://www.charleslea.org/

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a remarkable read. The book, best described as historical fiction, is set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early nineteenth century. It is inspired by the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, early leaders in women’s suffrage and the abolitionist movement. The book relates the coming-of-age story of two characters. Sarah is the daughter of a prominent lawyer. Hetty is a slave assigned to Sarah. Neither is a wilting magnolia. Both are determined women, each with a strong, defiant streak. I am not surprised that questions of God and Christian ethics arise throughout the novel.

Years ago, even while I was a seminary student, I realized that some of the best theology is not written by theologians. Works of fiction often require the reader to struggle with religious as well as moral issues. Theology and ethics are best learned through enrolling in the proverbial college of hard knocks. Fiction is one of the best ways to tell the truth about life.  

Among the more memorable novels with theological themes are Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851), Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1876), Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940), Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1955), Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev (1972), Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987), and Marilynne Robinson, the trilogy, Gilead (2004), home (2008), and Lilia (2014). This is a partial list, to be sure, but it is a respectable sampling.

Several years ago, I came across a book title I had never before seen. Talking with the Angels is the true story of four young Hungarians during the Holocaust. Over a seventeen-month period the four encountered luminous forces that helped them find courage and hope in a time of terrible uncertainty. These angels, as they were described, accompanied the group until three of the four young women met their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. Gitta Mallasz had recorded the instructions given to her in eighty-eight experiences of angelic revelation. Gitta was the only survivor among the friends. Her journals were preserved. After the war Gitta shared with the world these remarkable dialogues through her book. Gitta always rejected any notion that she was the author of the book, saying, “I am merely the scribe of the angels.”

Gitta’s story reminded me of one from my own family.


My nephew David Kreswell Suits came into the world in October 1981, the fourth of eight children born to my sister Mamie and her husband, Dr. Steve Suits.  Kres was a twin. His twin brother, William Haynsworth Suits, was stillborn. 

Mamie knew immediately that something was wrong with Kres.  He screamed and shook uncontrollably.  Mamie could do little to console her baby boy. Several pediatricians examined Kres.

An older physician suggested that Mamie and Steve take their infant son to a pediatric neurologist for an ultrasound of his brain. 

When the results of the scan were revealed, the doctor asked several questions: “Do you have other children?” 

“Yes, answered Mamie, “three.” 

“Are they all normal?” 

“As normal as they can be,” replied Steve.

After a long pause, the physician advised, “Take this child to a local facility for mentally impaired children.  Leave him there and try to forget that you ever had him.  Go home and take care of your three other children.”

Reluctant to hear more of his advice, Mamie escaped to the restroom.  She stared into the mirror and prayed. 

When she returned moments later, she asserted, “Steve, it’s time to take our baby home.”

Mamie and Steve presented Kres to their three older children – Steven, age four; Burk, age three; and Neely, one-and-a-half.  The children greeted their new little brother with love and joy. Mamie knew from that moment that Kres would be a part of their family forever 

Kres was diagnosed with hydranencephaly.  Quite simply, he had no brain, only a brain stem.  He had no vision. His hearing was extremely limited. He had no motor abilities.  Though Kres lived for twelve years, he was profoundly retarded. His tiny body could not develop.  Caring for him was a constant challenge. 

Mamie and Steve welcomed four more children to their family. Mamie commented, “Each time I had another child, it was like having two newborn babies to care for.”

Many times people advised Steve and Mamie to find a place for Kres so that they could provide their other children with the attention they needed.  Mamie simply noted, “Kres was a part of our family.  He was God’s gift to all of us, and he made a profound impact on every one of us.”

I asked Mamie about any high points in the twelve years that she cared for Kres.  She explained that Kres could make no positive response and that every reaction was a cry or a scream except on very rare occasions. 

In Mamie’s words, “Once in a while, Kres had a peaceful angelic expression on his face and a very faint smile.  When that happened, I would tell my other children, ‘Kres is talking with the angels.’” 

Mamie added, “Just before his twelfth birthday, I went in to check on him.  He had the biggest grin on his face.  It was as if the angels had told him a wonderful secret.”

My parents had the custom of giving each of their forty-six grandchildren a very special present on their twelfth birthday.  When asked what they could give Kres, Mamie and Steve told them that Kres had been accustomed to sleeping on a waterbed.  His brothers loved to bounce on the bed.  It had finally burst.  And so for Kres’ birthday, Mamie suggested that Mom and Dad buy a new waterbed, Kres-size in length.

Dad purchased some fine walnut lumber and asked Ray Harris to build a waterbed frame, countertop height so that Mamie would not have to bend down when tending to Kres.  Ray Harris has been a family friend for many years.  He is a carpenter and a master cabinet maker. The gift was to be ready sometime before Christmas 1993.

Two weeks after his twelfth birthday, November 8, 1993, David Kreswell Suits died.  Dad and I went to the home to be with the family.  Dad stayed with Mamie while I drove Steve to the hospital.  He wanted a physician friend to sign the death certificate.  I will never forget turning in the darkness toward Steve, who was in the passenger’s seat.  As he cradled his tiny twelve-year-old son in his arms, I saw that rare smile on Kres’ face that Mamie had mentioned. I thought He’s talking with the angels. Steve and I both wept tears of grief and tears of joy.

When Mamie found out that the bed frame had not yet been built, she asked Dad, “Could the lumber be used to make a coffin for Kres instead?” 

The night before the funeral, Ray Harris stayed up all night long, fashioning a fine walnut casket.  Mama lined the coffin with a quilt, one that she had made by hand.

Gathered around Kres’ grave, our thoughts turned to a twelve-year-old boy, so limited in this life but now made whole.

We were all sure that Kres was talking and singing with the angels. 

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com       

GOOBER PEAS

September 11, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of these agencies. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Mobile Meals of Spartanburg, 419 E Main Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 573-7684

When I was in the fourth grade, Mrs. Pearl Fairbetter, my teacher,  assigned each of her students to do a report on a scientist. That day when I went by the lumberyard on my way home from school, I saw a paper bag of boiled peanuts that had been placed on the counter. While my grandfather and I ate goobers, I told him about Mrs. Fairbetter’s assignment.

Pappy suggested, “Kirk, you ought to do a report on George Washington Carver. He’s a fellow who did more with peanuts than anybody.”

I learned from a biography of George Washington Carver that this former slave became a scientist and discovered three hundred uses for peanuts. A teacher with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, Caver devoted his life to conducting research projects connected with Southern agriculture. His work revolutionized the economy of the South by liberating it from dependence on cotton. Carver suggested that peanut derivatives could be used as adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, fuel briquettes, ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, paper, plastic, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder, and wood stain, just to name a few.

So many uses, but the best use is to eat them, boiled, roasted, parched, dried, fried, salted, or unsalted!

I am the eldest of eight children. Dad and Mama were the proud grandparents of forty-five grandchildren. When we had a family gathering, it was a big event. Even when some could not be with us, we still had a crowd.

Clare and I attended a bridal shower and potluck supper for a niece and her fiancé.  The buffet table was laden with an abundance of many of our favorites. My brother Bill, who drove from Eastern North Carolina, brought ten pounds of boiled peanuts.

My family gathered around to shuck and suck boiled peanuts. Inevitably, somebody’s eyes are bigger than their stomach. They gobble enough goobers to make themselves ill.

Soon my sister Mamie was moaning and groaning after eating a double ration. “Sorry you’re feeling bad,” someone sympathized.

“It’s okay. It’s kinda’ like having a baby. The joy of the experience more than makes the pain worth it.”

She should know. Like her mother before her, she’s given birth to eight. Mamie really likes boiled peanuts!

Several years ago, Clare and I hosted a passel of guests over the Labor Day weekend. Most of our visitors came from places north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Other than a family member from Nashville, Tennessee, and Clare’s brother, Ben, who lives in Cincinnati, we had a house full of Yankees.

Ben has deep roots in South Carolina. When he returns to this part of the world, he starts drooling for Southern cuisine. By the time he arrives in the Palmetto State, he is ready for delicious, salty boiled peanuts.

We placed a bowl overflowing with the delicacy on the coffee table in our den. Ben helped himself. So, too, did several of the others who were completely unfamiliar with boiled peanuts. Bless their hearts! Ben gave a demonstration to the uninitiated, showing them the fine art of sucking goober peas, which is a little like eating raw oysters on the half shell. You just let them slide around in your mouth a second before gulping them down.

Some of our guests enjoyed them; others turned away in disgust, saying, “Those things are so gross!”  By bedtime the bowl was empty.

Peanuts have long been a Southern staple. A handful of salted peanuts funneled into a glass bottle of Royal Crown Cola, Pepsi, or Coca-Cola makes a concoction my Uncle Will called Dixie Drizzle. A paper bag of parched or roasted peanuts is perfect at a baseball or football game. But hot peanuts, boiled to perfection, are the crème de la crème of Southern snacks.

My father-in-law, Mr. Jack, had great success raising peanuts in his spacious garden in Leesville, South Carolina. My mother-in-law, Miz Lib, parched a good many to serve as snacks. She also kept a good supply of boiled peanuts in her freezer for those times when Ben returned home from places too far north and too far away.

Peanuts require a long, hot growing season. They need a well-drained, light, sandy soil with plenty of organic matter. The soil should be loose, not clayish and hard. Soils in the Sandhills and Lowcountry area are excellent.

The peanut is a legume. The flowering plant produces underground pods that contain the delicious seeds. Peanut plants have been in continuous cultivation for over 3500 years. They originated in South America and were carried to Africa by early explorers. Traders took them to Spain and North America. In the American Colonial period peanuts were used as food aboard ships because they were cheap and of high nutritional value.

The peanut comes in four varieties.

Virginia peanuts have been grown in the eastern region of the United States since the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Virginias, also called big whites, have the largest kernels and are the most commonly sold snack peanut.  

Spanish peanuts have a smaller kernel with red skin. My grandfather had a peanut machine at the lumberyard. Deposit one penny in the slot, turn the knob, and a handful of red Spanish peanuts magically dropped from the glass globe into your waiting hand. A nickel would buy an ice-cold Coca-Cola, the perfect companion for the salty redskins.

Because of their high yields, Runners are the most dominant variety in the United States. Grown commercially throughout the Deep South, most runners are used for peanut butter and peanut oil.

The Valencia variety features a bright red skin and small kernels. Valencias are sweet. Though excellent when roasted in the shell, they are even better when boiled.

No one knows just why Southerners started boiling peanuts, a folk practice in the South since the nineteenth century. In late August, when the peanut crop came in, surplus peanuts were boiled. Extended family and neighbors gathered round to share the feast of goober peas, a name derived from the African word for peanut, nguba.

At one point, they became a necessity. After Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia, the Confederacy was split in two. Rebel soldiers were deprived of much needed supplies. In order to feed the Army, the Confederate government provided peanuts, which the soldiers boiled over their campfires. A well-known folk song tells the story.

Sitting by the roadside on a summer’s day

Chatting with my mess-mates, passing time away

Lying in the shadows underneath the trees

Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas.

Just before the battle, the General hears a row

He says, “The Yanks are coming, I hear their rifles now.”

He looks down the roadway, and what d’ya think he sees?

The Georgia Militia cracking goober peas.

I think my song has lasted just about enough.

The subject is interesting, but the rhymes are mighty rough.

I wish the war was over, so free from rags and fleas

We’d kiss our wives and sweethearts, and gobble goober peas.

Late summer into early fall is prime time for boiled peanuts. In the Southern clime, roadside stands or pickup truck peddlers offer bags of the tasty treat. For the last twenty-seven years, the town of Pelion has thrown a Peanut Party every August. The local Ruritan Club boils nearly 130 bushels of peanuts.

Like okra, black-eyed peas, collard greens, grits, and pork barbecue, boiled peanuts are indigenous to our Southern culture. Much like a fish fry, a pig picking, or a Low-country shrimp boil, a peanut boil became a social occasion.

Over Labor Day weekend two years ago, our family celebrated a birthday for our grandson at a neighborhood pool. Carl Bostick is our son Kris’ father-in-law. Not only do Carl and I share three grandchildren, we both enjoy good food. Carl brought a big bag of boiled peanuts to the party. While other adults and children enjoyed a cool dip in the swimming pool, the two grandfathers – Carl and I – like our Confederate ancestors, sat in the shade and feasted on good old goober peas.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com