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Voices Fall-Winter 2009:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Foodways column, “The Bronx Seedless Grape” by Makalé Faber Cullen.
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Voices FW2009


Volume 35

The Bronx Seedless Grape BY MAKALE FABER CULLEN

Long before our contemporary chefs developed the New American cuisine, farmers and horticulturists were the custodians of taste, walking their orchards, vineyards, and vegetable fields sampling fruits and saving seeds from the most cleverly delicious tree, bush, or vine. For a contemporary farmer to grow a Bronx Seedless grape is to reclaim that custodial role after almost a century and reposition farmers as the guardians of flavor and their family-owned farms as the sanctuaries of quality. “And you know,” says John Legier of Legier Ranches in Escalon, California, “growing for flavor isn’t a bad economic decision. I don’t struggle to get customers. Despite split skins and loose berries that fall off the bunch, the moment people put a Bronx Seedless in their mouth they just want to know where they can get more. I never lack for a customer.”

To embrace the delectable heritage of the Bronx Seedless grape, we must trace its route from the East Coast to the West over a matter of some eighty years. Let’s start in 1925, in the Bronx borough of New York City. The native American Concord, a tough-skinned purple fruit loaded with seeds and a cartoonishly grapy flavor, was crossed with the leading table grape of the times, the Thompson Seedless, praised for its tenderness, sweetness, and mildness. All bets were on the new grape, especially if it could combine the “Egads!” grapiness of the Concord (typically processed into a jelly) with the texture of the Thompson Seedless to yield a first-rate table grape.

In 1931, after six years of careful attention and selection, the Bronx Seedless was delivered by Dr. Arlow Stout of the New York Botanical Gardens, in partnership with the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. Green with a sunset pink blush, this medium-sized, round grape has a floral bouquet and a honeylike taste that melts on the tongue—characteristics that quickly earned it a prized nickname, “the Rolls Royce of table grapes.”

The Bronx Seedless and Stout’s other selections are wonderful examples of the kind of slow, not-for-profit plant breeding that developed many of the finest fruits and vegetables that once stocked our farmers’ markets and corner grocery stores. Bred for taste and texture more than for high production, uniformity, and the ability to withstand long-distance shipping, the Bronx Seedless is what some might call a twentieth-century anachronism.

The texture of the Bronx Seedless is both a blessing and a curse, for its juicy flesh and extremely thin skin make it prone to cracking in summer heat or the most ordinary of afternoon rains. No wonder it has had a difficult time holding its own in frenzied food markets focused more on transportability than flavor. For the American table grape industry—the third largest in the world and one that was built on long-distance shipping— the fragility of the Bronx Seedless seemed to have doomed it to commercial failure.

Bronx Panzanella
2-1/2cups Bronx Seedless grapes, halved
1/2 cup walnut oil
1 cup walnuts
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
6–8 slices sourdough bread, lightly toasted

In a bowl, combine the grapes, walnut oil, walnuts, and vinegar, and season with pepper. Cut or tear the toasted bread into bite-sized pieces. Place half the bread pieces in a wide, shallow bowl. Spoon on half of the grape mixture. Layer the remaining bread on top, followed by the remaining grape mixture. Cover for half an hour, and set aside. The grape juices will soak into the bread, as tomato juices do in panzanella, a Tuscan bread-and-vegetable salad.

Fortunately, a farmer in California committed to growing flavorful food adopted the Bronx Seedless in 1979, transplanting it from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. He was in no way intimidated by the industry’s profit-driven dismissal of the Bronx Seedless. And today he is allowing a new generation of intrepid shoppers to experience this Rolls Royce of table grapes. “I started growing them because they’re just so good to eat,” John Legier says. “If I followed what the industry was doing, I’d select only the thickest-skinned grapes that hold a shape and a profit but no aroma, no flavor, no juice. But that’s not why I grow food. It’s got to taste good. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Although the Bronx Seedless is now available from only two nurseries on the continent—Lon Rombough and Weeks Berry Nursery, both in Oregon—the current revival of interest in its table qualities may help it squeak through hard times and perhaps reemerge in its home state. New York counties bounded by Lake Erie and the Finger Lakes have more than 85 percent of the state’s vineyard acreage and form the northern half of the “Concord grape belt,” so a reunion seems promising.

The recipe on this page is adapted from chef Laurent Manrique of Aqua Restaurant in San Francisco. Bronx Seedless grapes are best eaten fresh. Ask your grocer to start selling them and your farmer to start growing them—and get eating!

Makalé Faber Cullen recently completed a three-and-a-half year fieldwork assignment, documenting North America’s agricultural diversity and developing marketing campaigns in support of artisanal food producers, for the United States office of Slow Food. She currently develops sustainability initiatives for Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, and serves on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance.

A version of this column originally appeared in Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2008), edited by Gary Nabhan; the book is available from Chelsea Green Publishing, www.chelseagreen.com.

Green with a sunset pink blush, this medium-sized, round grape has a floral bouquet and a honeylike taste that melts on the tongue—characteristics that quickly earned it a prized nickname, “the Rolls Royce of table grapes.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 35, Fall-Winter 2009. 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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