Georgann Eubanks: Bigger is Rarely Better

The Month of Their Ripening by Georgann EubanksToday we welcome a guest post by Georgann Eubanks, author of The Month of Their Ripening:  North Carolina Heritage Foods through the Year, just published by UNC Press.

Telling the stories of twelve North Carolina heritage foods, each matched to the month of its peak readiness for eating, The Month of Their Ripening takes readers on a flavorful journey across the state. Georgann Eubanks begins in January with the most ephemeral of southern ingredients—snow—to witness Tar Heels making ice cream. In March, she takes a midnight canoe ride on the Trent River in search of shad, a bony fish with a savory history. In November, she visits a Chatham County sawmill where the possums are always first into the persimmon trees.

The Month of Their Ripening is available now in both print and ebook editions.

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Bigger is Rarely Better

Clara Brickhouse grows scuppernongs to sell at farmer's markets in and around Tyrrell County.

Clara Brickhouse grows scuppernongs to sell at farmer’s markets in and around Tyrrell County.
Photo by Donna Campbell

Miss Clara Brickhouse is a tall and dignified woman in her eighties. She lives in a community called Travis in North Carolina’s smallest county, Tyrrell. Her home is not far from the source of the Scuppernong River, so named by white settlers in the late 1600s because of the proximity and profusion of the grape that would eventually be designated the state’s official fruit in 2001.  (The Algonquin Indian word askuponong actually means “the place of the sweet bay tree,” which is another prolific plant in the region, but the wild bronze grapes were what the first explorers fancied and thus named.)

Miss Clara, as she prefers to be called, grows several varieties of these indigenous, hard-hulled grapes that belong to the larger muscadine family. Her eighteen vines are arranged on trellises in her backyard garden, which also features blueberries, blackberries, apples, and an occasional visiting snake. Her immaculate rows of plantings are visible from U.S. 64 East, along the route to Manteo and the Outer Banks.

Miss Clara's favorite variety of smaller grapes.

Miss Clara’s favorite variety of smaller grapes.
Photo by Donna Campbell

“These little ones are my favorites,” Miss Clara says, bringing a plastic carton of ripened scuppernongs from her kitchen. We could smell the fruit’s musky sweet perfume as Miss Clara offered a sample. Scuppernongs are a taste from my childhood, and the flavor instantly takes me back to my grandfather’s handbuilt trellis of galvanized pipes.

That day with Miss Clara was one of many adventures photographer Donna Campbell and I shared as we traveled across North Carolina, marking the months in which certain reliable foods spring forth, contributing to our state’s history and identity over the centuries.  Some common themes along our route emerged–notably, that today’s consumers seem to prefer the biggest version of everything they might eat.

Of course, trying to catch the biggest fish or grow a hefty pumpkin has always been a source of competitive pride. But time and again we heard from farmers and fishmongers, cooks and horticulturalists, that the public always wants “the big ones,” even in something as relatively small as grapes.

On Colington Island in Dare County we met Murray Bridges, another octogenarian who handles several hundred crab traps each day during the peak of soft-shell season in May. He, too, confirmed that the demand among the buying public tends toward the largest crabs. An arcane system of grading soft-shell crabs evolved in the 20th century, using a scale that is actually different from industry standards in sizing the hard-shell blue crabs in our coastal waters. From smallest to largest the grades are medium, hotel, prime, jumbo, and whale. Note there is no “small” category, and every name given hints of a certain corpulence.

As Bridges’s friend and colleague, Willy Phillips, who sells soft shells out of a storefront seafood market in Columbia, North Carolina, told us:  “The tourists always want to see whales on their platters. But I think the best size is the prime–the four and a half to five inch crab. The smaller ones taste sweeter and cook easier. To cook through a larger soft-shell crab and get the middle done, it means the legs get too done,” Willy said.

In the Piedmont region, just south of the Virginia border, a lone farmer grows a historic melon, very small by current standards, but distinguished by its sweetness. The Ridgeway cantaloupe draws its special flavor from the soil that runs a few miles along a ridge near Norlina. This particular fruit was a sensation in the 1930s and was served in fine restaurants up and down the east coast. Now the Ridgeway cantaloupe has but one grower left, its reputation having been eclipsed by much larger hybrid melons engineered for size and long distance shipment, not so much for taste.

Farther west, on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Mitchell County, Bill Carson runs the non-profit Orchard at Altapass. He, too, talked about size in describing his heirloom apples. A former aerospace engineer who worked for IBM and later on the Apollo moon mission, Carson likes to say, that at his retirement, he went from IBM to apple overnight.

Carson and his sister restored the historic mountain orchard that flanks the Parkway near Spruce Pine and have learned about the expectations of apple buyers who are accustomed to the smooth, symmetrical, and flawless skins of supermarket apples. Carson’s heirloom trees produce oddly shaped, inconsistent, and blemished fruits that are authentic to the region. One of his most popular apples is the King Luscious, an heirloom named by a shrewd marketer to promote its size. From the grower’s perspective, however, “they are not good pollinators,” Carson told us. “They are late to bloom and subject to blight.” Nevertheless King Luscious is among the most popular varieties because of their name and size.

The official North Carolina state fruit--the thick-hulled scuppernong.

The official North Carolina state fruit–the thick-hulled scuppernong.
Photo by Donna Campbell

As we learned in our investigations for the book, The Month of Their Ripening, bigger is rarely better. “People want the big ones,” scuppernong grower Clara Brickhouse said finally. “They think they’re getting more for their money with the big grapes, but they’re not, because a quart is a quart!”

Miss Clara knows what she is talking about.

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Georgann Eubanks is a writer, Emmy-winning documentarian, and popular speaker. She is the author of Literary Trails of Eastern North Carolina, Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont, and Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains.  You can read her earlier UNC Press Blog post here.  For more information, visit her website, www.georganneubanks.net.