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Voices Fall-Winter, 2002:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Foodways column, “The World’s Greatest Grape Pie” by Lynn Case Ekfelt here.
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Volume 28
Fall-Winter
2002
Voices

Headline - The World's Greatest Grape Pie by Lynn Case Ekfelt

FoodwaysWe park on the outskirts of town—necessary on Grape Festival Weekend when the usual population of twelve hundred swells to one hundred thousand in tiny Naples, at the southern tip of Canandaigua Lake. As we wend our way downtown past purple fire hydrants and the blandishments of 250 craft vendors, we pass up opportunities to purchase grape kuchen, filled grape cookies, grape jelly, grape cheesecake, grape bread, frozen grape custard, and grape sundaes. I’m saving myself for the main event, that hour when I’ll watch a team of judges choose "the world’s greatest grape pie."

Irene Bouchard is universally recognized as the mother of Naples’ grape pies, if not their actual inventor. In the early 1960s, Al Hodges, owner of the Redwood Restaurant, decided to introduce a novelty to lure customers: pies made from abundant local grapes, using a recipe he learned from an old German woman in the area. Soon people were coming from miles around, asking to buy whole pies to take home. Hodges and his chef could not handle the demand and called on Mrs. Bouchard, who lived across the street and had opened a small baking business in her home. By the 1980s, she was buying two and a quarter tons of grapes every fall and turning out six thousand pies, baked twelve at a time in her regular oven and an auxiliary wall oven. At eighty-four, she now bakes only for a few favored customers, but she has inspired other local cooks to follow in her footsteps. Most bake just during grape season—about seven weeks during the fall—and sell their products from stands in front of their homes. Others, though, freeze enough filling that they can sell pies year-round, and some have even begun to sell over the Internet. It is estimated that twenty thousand pies change hands during Grape Festival Weekend alone.

I meet one of the younger generation of bakers, Jennifer Makepeace, when I stop by her stand—or to be more accurate, one of her stands. Winner of last year’s contest, she has set up booths at each end of Main Street, both with signs proclaiming her status as world’s greatest grape pie maker. When Jennifer won her prize last year, she had been making her own pies for only two years, though she had been helping her mother make filling for seven years. She tells me she is hoping to sell 600 pies this season. The next day I learn that after selling 855 pies the first day of the festival, she pressed everyone in her family into service and made 125 more that night for day two.

There is no one correct way to make a grape pie. Irene thickens her filling with tapioca; Jennifer uses flour. Most bakers prefer Concord grapes, but sometimes they fall back on the thicker-skinned but earlier-ripening wordens. Some even use the green, champagne-flavored Delawares. The grape pulp is always boiled to loosen the seeds. Usually that’s the only cooking the grapes get until they bake in the pie. Some bakers, though, prefer to cook filling ingredients together on the stove before putting them into the crust, a step that gives their pies an almost jamlike consistency.


Drawing of grapesGRAPE PIE

Even though they may be perfectly willing to share their recipes, the bakers of Naples have trouble letting outsiders in on the secret of the perfect pie because they never bake just one: they prepare pies in quantity. After much consideration, Irene Bouchard worked out the following for me:

5 1/2 cups Concord grapes, washed
about 1 cup sugar, depending on the sweetness of the grapes
1 tablespoon tapioca
Pastry for a 9-inch pie

Pop the skins off the grapes by pinching them at the end opposite the stem; set them aside. Put the pulp (without water) into a heavy pan, bring it to a boil, and let it boil 5 to 6 minutes. Put it through a colander or food mill to remove the seeds. Pour the hot pulp over the skins and let the mixture sit for 5 hours. ("This colors the pulp and makes it pretty.") Add the sugar and tapioca, then pour the mixture into the pie crust and dot with butter. Put on the top crust. (Irene uses a "floating" top crust—a circle of dough slightly smaller than the top of the pie—because it is easier than crimping top and bottom together and it also makes a pretty purple ring around the edge.) Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 350 degrees and cook 20 minutes more until the crust is browned and the juice begins to bubble up.


Now it’s time to make my way into the judging room where nineteen numbered pieces of pie await three teams of two judges. Pie crusts and fillings are each to be judged on appearance, texture, and taste. The judging is blind; only one person knows who made each pie, and she’s not telling. Slowly the judges circle the table. There are no chefs or cooking instructors among them, just local people who like pie. For a while, all I hear are snatches of conversation: "too corn-starchy ... too perfect and commercial-looking ... this tastes like Smuckers ... it’s too jammy ... that filling was gnarly." Now the contest takes a high-tech turn, as the tallier sprawls on the floor with his laptop to total the ballots on a specially designed spreadsheet. While he works, I sneak tastes of what remains on some of the plates. Good call: that filling is indeed gnarly! This year a clear winner has emerged—no need for the taste-off that has settled some past contests. I peek at the name and am delighted to see that it is Jennifer again, then head back to the car with a sack of grape tarts, a small loaf of grape bread, and—of course—a grape pie.


 




Irene Bouchard is universally recognized as the mother of Naples’ grape pies, if not their actual inventor...By the 1980s, she was buying two and a quarter tons of grapes every fall and turning out six thousand pies, baked twelve at a time in her regular oven and an auxiliary wall oven.


This column appeared in Voices Vol. 28, Fall-Winter 2002. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.


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Folklorist and celebrated cook Lynn Case Ekfelt has researched communities in northern New York to produce this fascinating cookbook with 25 chapters—consisting of essays on food events, traditional family recipes, historical profiles and photographs. Chapters on food types including wild game, maple syrup, apples, fish, and cheese recipes; ethnic communities, including the Amish, Italian Americans, African Americans, and Mohawks: and community events such as firemen’s field days, church suppers, and county fairs.

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