For many, fall is the finest of the four seasons in the Carolinas, and thinking of what awaits us in the coming months is the ideal antidote for our current drought and the miseries of dog days. The onset of autumn brings a welcome respite from heat and humidity, in addition to offering the beauty of Indian Summer's bluebird skies, turning leaves, and an invigorating coolness in the air.
Sportsmen in particular cherish autumn. Beginning with doves and rapidly progressing to deer and a variety of small game, it is a time for the hunter to be afield. Similarly, anglers enjoy fine sport varying from delicate casts to brown trout making their annual spawning runs in mountain streams to bluefish slashing everything that moves in the surf following September's first good nor'easter.
Yet fall wears another attractive face, once which can be readily appreciated and enjoyed by all who cherish the outdoors be they hunters, fishermen, hikers, campers, or others. This aspect of autumn focuses on an appealing array of wild edibles which await us in nature's larder. A few hours spent gathering these wild foods, then preparing and eating them, can be a real joy.
Over the next few weeks various wild grapes will be ripening. Whether they are fox grapes overhanging branches, creeks, and rivers; wild muscadines reaching skyward in bushes and trees; or scuppernongs growing wild or on long abandoned homesites, grapes offer a real treat. Delicious eaten off the vine, especially once they have reached full ripeness, wild grapes also make excellent jellies and jams. Similarly, the glories of a muscadine pie are seldom forgotten by those who have sampled this delicacy, while a cool glass of homemade scuppernong wine is a mighty refreshing post-hunt libation.
One of the most widespread of all fall's delicacies are persimmons. As with grapes, it is necessary to beat competitors such as 'coons, 'possums, and deer in order to enjoy these tawny golden globes. They are found growing along fence rows, in overgrown, abandoned farm fields, by rural roadsides, and at the edge of mature forests.
Sticky sweet when fully ripe, persimmons have a quite different taste when still green. As many an innocent city lad has learned to the delight of his country cousins, unripe persimmons have a bitter taste which gives an entirely new meaning to pucker power. What few realize, however, is that cooked persimmons lose all their astringent taste. Harvested, with seeds removed, persimmon pulp can be used to make pudding or that delight which gives a biscuit a college education, persimmon butter.
A few generations back, fall nutting expeditions were a source of pleasure for many rural families. These outings also played a critical role in filling the family larder.
A key source of "nutting" in those days, the American chestnut, now sadly belongs to a world we have lost. The chestnut fell victim to a virulent blight accidentally imported from Asia shortly after the turn of the century, and while valiant efforts at crossbreeding and genetic engineering continue, the return of this fallen monarch of trees still seems a distant dream.
On the other hand, the delicious black walnut, which repays every bit of the considerable effort required to get its meat, remains plentiful. The same is true of hickory nuts, which American Indians utilized widely. Chinquapins, hazelnuts, and butternuts are less readily available, but those conversant with the wilds make mental notes of their whereabouts and harvest them come fall.
OTHER FALL DELICACIES
In addition to grapes, persimmons, and nuts, there are other wild foods available during the fall. Among those which were once cherished are pawpaws, maypops, and locust pods. They remain widespread in the Carolinas, though they are seldom harvested. Yet the musky sweetness of a pawpaw or the refreshing, slightly tart pulp of a maypop are taste treats no commercially available fruit can duplicate. Locust pods, for their part, offer honey-like sweetness when eaten raw, and they also can be used to make a mead-like beer.
Whatever one's individual tastes and inclinations, the coming of fall is a fine time to venture into the fields and woods in search of wild bounty. To harvest nuts or fall fruits is to know a special sense of self-satisfaction along with making a brief but meaningful return to our pioneering roots.
WILD GRAPE JELLY
Wild grapes to produce five cups of juice
Package of natural fruit pectin
7 cups of sugar
Crush grapes a single layer at a time. Water may be added to juice, if necessary, to make five cups. Pour juice into a large saucepan and stir in pectin. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Add sugar, again bring to a boil. Allow to boil for one minute then remove from heat. Skim foam and ladle liquid into sterilized jars and seal. Makes 8 pints.
OLD-FASHIONED PERSIMMON PUDDING
8 cups persimmon pulp
2 cups buttermilk
2 beaten eggs
1 cup milk
2 cups firmly-packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup butter or margarine, melted
Press persimmon pulp through a sieve or colander then blend in buttermilk. Add, in order given, eggs, milk, brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, flour, baking soda and butter, blending well. Spread batter in greased 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until firm. Serve with whipped cream or a hard sauce. Serves 12 to 16.
As of this writing, the drought continues unabated and the heat is only slightly less withering. Still, take comfort in the return of hunting season, and here's hoping your opening day on doves went well. It certainly isn't too early to be out scouting for deer, and if you don't have stands hung or placed it is high time to do so. For fishermen, given the status of area lakes, farm ponds or a trip to the mountains or beach are about the only options until we get some serious rain.