Sometimes when we eat anything, we’ll be transported back in time to the first time we ever experienced a completely new feeling. Not that kind of tale here.
My summer job in 2010 was at a restaurant in Brooklyn called Pies ‘n’ Thighs, which served traditional Southern dishes. Making the morning’s produce order into the day’s dish foundations was one of my jobs. The seasonal fruits and vegetables I received throughout time provided me with a window into the world outside our kitchen in the basement. And it was there that I was introduced to Concord grapes for the first time, the rich purple fruit coming in flats just as the season looked to be peaking, the mid-August heat nearly oppressive thanks to the cooking ovens.
Though I had never seen a Concord grape in my life, I was familiar with them since their flavour was so similar to the “grape” flavour of many of the candies and drinks I had enjoyed as a child in Lagos. In stores that offered European candies, we had grape jellies, but I’d never had a grape from the grocery with such a flavour. Concord grapes were luscious and sweeter than pears and a step below berries in terms of sweetness. There was a musty, occasionally earthy aroma about them, as though the fruit had traces of the vine. I had to adjust my recollections when I tasted one for the first time, plucked from a ripe bunch in that basement kitchen. What I thought was an entirely synthetic flavour turned out to be present in a genuine dish.
Those Concord grapes were supposed to become jam, which we then utilised to make a pie that became a wintertime favourite.
The Concord grape filling placed in a black-pepper shortbread crust was like an adult-sized piece of childhood for Sarah Sanneh, the pie’s creator and co-owner of Pies ‘n’ Thighs.
She reflected fondly on her experience eating grapes from a wild vine in her grandmother’s garden. We seldom ever used them in the kitchen. My sister and I really enjoyed them while they were fresh, and I yearned for a pie with a flavour as robust and grapy as theirs.
I spent 15 years working in restaurant kitchens, and I still remember the prep work like it was yesterday. I found that the components spoke to me most clearly at these times.
After all these years, I’ve learned to wait until the Concord grapes are perfectly ripe before making the jelly. In the process I learned at Pies ‘n’ Thighs, the grape skins are removed by popping out the soft interior, and then they are reincorporated into the jam. Here, entire grapes are soaked in water until mushy, and then crushed after being cooked in a saucepan. The last step is to filter out the seeds and skins from the grape juice. The only other components are sugar, lemon juice, and pectin.
With each mouthful, you’ll be transported back in time to reminisce about your favourite childhood pleasures and the adult occasion that appeared to bring them full circle. Identical to the form of a bunch of grapes.