Grist for the Mill
My mother was out of town for the weekend. It was early fall, still hot. When my dad came home from the farm that afternoon, he brought a plastic garbage can full of grapes and a whiffle ball bat to where we were playing in the backyard.
I was nine or ten years old, and I’d never in my life smelled anything so funky. The grapes had been fermenting a while already, rotten-sweet, their little bodies breaking down. The pit of the garbage can was inky-black. As we set up on the patio under the yellow striped awning, my parents’ wrought iron lawn furniture pushed aside, the golden retriever panting under the swingset, I had the strong suspicion my mother had not signed off on this project.
We were making wine.
My dad had been in the business of farming for years at this point, and his father even longer. They grew pumpkins and strawberries for U-pick operations, and kept some 600 acres in vineyards in York County, selling mostly Concord and Scuppernongs to Taylor Winery in NY when trucks made it in time, to Welch’s when they didn’t. But that was about the extent of his experience in the field.
Of course I thought of my dad’s vineyards when I was reading Kathleen Nalley’s piece on North Carolina wine country, set off by Brian Kelley’s gorgeous photos (“Family Roots,”). But also I remembered this moment on the patio, in all its half-baked mess and recklessness. I think I understand his impulse better now. I teach myself to make things—I knit, I write, I cook—both for the satisfaction of the process, but also to share what I’ve made with others. It’s a little bit about the art of transformation, about not hiding your light under a bushel, but also something more.
I see this same spirit in many of the subjects we cover in this issue, home businesses like Blue Ridge Brinery or Jonathan Caleb Cakes, cooked up over kitchen tables with loved ones and a skill that could blossom given the chance. Chances like the one chef Christina Halstead took when she entered the Neighborhood to Nation recipe contest with her pimento cheese biscuit BLT, and won big. Or second chances, like the ones Karen Dorkings gives her farm animals at Strawberry Fields Sanctuary.
My mother, returning home to a patio of wasps and grape-stained children? Not so happy. The wine was (I believe) deemed too dangerous to drink. But it’s still a great memory for me, full of a food-lover’s sense of sticky and sweet, the kind of memory that informs a lot of the things I like to do now. Chances don’t always ensure success, but taking them is a risk with pretty great reward.