In Search of the Mothervine
The sweet, foxy funk of scuppernongs
By KaToya Ellis Fleming
Photo by Carmen Lucas via Wikimedia Commons. Color treatment by Carter/Reddy
Uncle Mike says that on summer nights in the country it would get dark enough to make you go blind. A deep, boundless black that would heighten your other senses so intensely, you could hear every cricket in Harlem, Georgia chirping in chorus. “If you were real, real quiet,” he says, “you could even hear the worms slithering on the ground.” He punctuates this declaration by wiggling his forearm from side to side, mimicking the motion of the biggest worm ever. Uncle Mike has a flair for the dramatic. He also has what seems to be a photographic memory, as he tells some version of this story frequently, especially around this time of year. Every detail, every sight, sound, smell, and taste remains intact, with little variation from one telling to the next.
I’ve heard it so often it’s sometimes hard to remember that I wasn’t there during those idyllic summers. Back when Uncle Mike and Uncle Wayne, long before they were anyone’s uncles, used to spend two weeks at their grandmother (my great-grandmother) Camilla’s house in “the country.” My family’s slice of Harlem was so untouched by modernity that even in the early sixties the street in front of Camilla’s house wasn’t paved. To my uncles, the little town made our hometown Augusta, just some twenty miles away, feel fancy and citified.
I can picture my great-grandmother—I’ve been told my mother is the spitting image of her, with the exception that Camilla’s hair was jet-black before it went gray, while my mama’s is fire-red—walking through the brush to the wooded area across the field from her house with two eager little boys trailing behind her. I can imagine her carrying a big tin pan under one arm and a stick in the other. She’d beat the bushes and vines with the stick to chase away the snakes and other creepy-crawlies. The pan would cradle the bounty of wild and abundant fruit that she and her grandsons picked. Pears and persimmons. Blackberries and some other kind of berries, likely boysenberries, that Uncle Mike calls “red blackberries.” And muscadines and their greenish-gold cousin, scuppernongs.
I was a full-grown adult before I knew how to spell the word “scuppernong.” This deficiency was not helped by the phonetic gymnastics some growers would undertake to advertise their roadside produce on cardboard signs. One such homemade billboard near my mama’s house would occasionally brag: SCUPPYNINES 4 SALE. I learned near about the same time that some folks don’t even know what a scuppernong is and have never experienced these strange grapes—fat, round, and golden, their skins tough and tart, like the rind of a slightly underripe plum. This realization made the fruit a special thing to me, a uniquely Southern commodity deeply ensconced in the lore of my family.
It doesn’t take much to get Uncle Mike talking about great-grandmama’s house. The version of the story you get is determined by what prompts him to tell it. The last telling I vividly remember was woven in the summer of 2019, brought on by somber news: Although autumn would soon come, our family’s yearly hoard of scuppernongs would not. The only person we knew who harvested them had been hit with a bum crop. I wished aloud that I had a green thumb but, alas, even unkillable plants are doomed on my watch. A lucky bamboo plant’s luck runs out the minute I get it home. But I wonder how I would have fared back in the day, if my gardening skills might have blossomed, if I’d had great-grandmama’s tutelage during summers in the country.
My family doesn’t get down to the country much anymore, or at all, really. Plus, Harlem isn’t exactly the country anymore. Small and quaint, sure, but not behind the times. Not that any of that matters anyway since my family no longer owns that piece of land where fruit and little Black boys could grow wild and free. That summer in 2019, our collective reminiscing about an edible relic led us to take a field trip. I dragged Uncle Mike around Augusta, first to our old neighborhood, and then to a series of barren grocery stores, happily unaware that this was one of the last times we’d sit in a car together mask-less for the next two years. As we rode through the city, memories of our childhoods in this place rolled out before us, appearing and disappearing in rearview mirrors or in our minds’ eyes. The elementary school we both attended—still standing. His high school—still standing, but renovated beyond his recognition. My high school—demolished and grandly re-erected elsewhere. My granny’s, his mama’s, house—our home—gone.
We made our way through town to the farmers market where a handful of local growers gathered, only to discover that they, too, were in short supply of scuppernongs. What few they did have, languishing in under-filled pint baskets pestered by wasps, had mostly been outsourced from North Carolina.
I was more upset than I should have been that the field trip was fruitless. Pun intended. Our old family stories keep me connected to a place and time both familiar and foreign and provide snapshots from our lives that make my family’s history feel real and tangible. But this time, the story of great-grandmama’s house and the futile search to find scuppernongs only made me nervous about my impending move. I’d just accepted a fellowship in Arkansas, after which I’d be offered an assistant professorship at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. This was going to be the first time I’d be living outside of Georgia for what would likely be years, away from the family and the homeplace that had made me.
On the way back we made one last stop at the Bi-lo up the street from my mama’s house. Their produce section boasted a pitiful offering of scuppernongs, small and mushy, packaged in plastic containers labeled “Bronze Muscadine Grapes.” Lackluster, but cheap. I conceded and grabbed a pack. Before heading to the checkout line, I decided to peruse the wine aisle, because why not? That’s when I saw it. A single bottle of Duplin Winery’s scuppernong wine—"The Mothervine.”
Uncle Mike and I headed back to my mama’s house with the loot. The scuppernongs were a disappointment as their appearance indicated they would be, but a $4 letdown was one I could live with. Worse was that while I listened to Uncle Mike ruminate on his adventures picking scuppernongs from the vine with his grandmother, the awful little orbs from the supermarket did nothing to conjure my own childhood memories of plucking scuppernongs on my walk home from school from vines that crept up a neighbor’s trellis. The Bi-lo specials promised none of the delight of biting into the taut skin, my front teeth sinking into the sweet, juicy flesh beneath, before I expertly spit the seeds on the ground machine-gun-style like an uncouth heathen. I wanted desperately to relive the innocent joy of sitting at Granny’s dining table eating the wild grapes by the handful from a peach basket while I waited for her to task me with the all-important job of turning the kitchen’s window fan on the “out” setting to get the heat or the smoke out of the kitchen while she cooked. I chewed the bland, watery fruit and silently chastised myself for my terrible habit of chasing ghosts.
Then, I popped the cork on the wine. A shimmer of musky sweet scent fluttered from the bottle.
“Hey, smell this,” I said to my mama, pouring her a glass and handing it to her.
She sniffed it, swirling it around like a connoisseur.
“Yep, smells just like scuppernongs,” she said. She sipped approvingly then leaned her glass toward me for a top off. I tipped another glug of wine into her glass, but I didn’t take a drink just yet. I was entranced by the aggressively sweet—and reminiscent—smell.
When they’re young and nearly as green as their leaves, scuppernongs can be pretty hard to see on the vine. But when you get close to a group that’s ripe for picking, they fill the air with a sweet, foxy funk; a warm, seductive fragrance that perfumes the room when you leave them out on your kitchen table. Regular grapes could never. When I finally poured my own glass and took a swig of wine, it tasted unlike any I’ve had before. An acquired taste for sure, like scuppernongs themselves, it’s smooth, rich, and syrupy sweet, like a feisty Moscato with a Southern drawl. I took another drink and held the liquid in my mouth. Then I sat back in my chair, closed my eyes, and I found it—the thing that I’d been craving.
“This tastes pretty alright,” I heard Uncle Mike say. Everyone agreed.
For the past three years, I’ve been making North Carolina my home, but it’s not Georgia. I’ve been homesick before, but something about the permanence of this relocation has created a powerful longing for the people and places back in the Peach State. Luckily sometimes, just in time, home finds you where you are.
Last summer, during a period of particular restlessness, my son and a lovely new friend surprised me on my birthday with a visit to a winery about an hour away from my house in Wilmington: Duplin Winery. As soon as the winery’s marquee came into view, I was reminded of the day when a wild goose chase for scuppernongs with my uncle ended with acceptance, contentment, and a sugary bottle of wine. And now, here I was on the native soil of a sweet thing that reminded me of what I left behind.
Once seated in the winery’s tasting room, I perused the tasting score card to see what treats awaited us: an unpretentious array of reds, whites, and blushes with quirky names like Queen Anne’s Revenge and Blueberry Cotton Candy. We sipped our way through a good bit of the list. Many were delightful, but I awaited one wine in particular—The Mothervine. I listened as the sommelier gave us a history lesson so we could fully appreciate what we were about to taste.
Located on Roanoke Island in North Carolina and estimated to be more than 400 years old, the “Mother Vine” is said to be the oldest grape vine in North America and the “mother” of all vines for scuppernong grapes—North Carolina’s state fruit. The grape’s name comes from the Algonquian word "askuponong" which means "the place of the Sweet Bay tree”—or “askupo.” Though scuppernong grapes can be found throughout the Southeast from late summer to early fall, their origin story, which is described as equal parts history and legend, belongs entirely to North Carolina, and has become part of the state’s cultural identity. It is said that every single scuppernong that has ever been grown is an offspring of the Mother Vine. The story of the fabled vine was interesting, but it hardly mattered whether the tale was truth or myth. The only thing that counted as we sat around the tasting table was that another piece of our family’s history was taking shape on a summer day.
I watched my kid, who is somehow old enough to take his mother to a winery for her birthday, basically ignore this information from the sommelier. Had my son been listening, he might also have learned that the correct way to do a wine tasting is to inspect and admire the nectar’s color and clarity, to swirl it, sniff it, savor it. Instead, he downed each pour like we were back in my mother’s Georgia kitchen. He scribbled hasty and hilariously unspecific notes on his scorecard. YEP. NAH. SWEET. I LIKE THIS ONE.
“Ma, you didn’t tell me I was supposed to smell it,” he leaned over and whispered loudly after recognizing his faux pas. I laughed at this memory taking shape in real time, this instantaneous evolution of the way I viewed the things that tether me to my homeplace. In that moment my son had become part of a tale that preceded us both. This would be a story, I realized, that I will tell again and again, the way Uncle Mike tells stories of picking scuppernongs at great-grandmama’s house. Like his, my story may vary from one telling to the next. But it will always end in laughter. Always in joy. Always in knowing that home goes and grows with you, wherever you are.
I swirled and sniffed my glass of The Mothervine before responding to my son:
“Sometimes that’s the best part.”
This series was published with support from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.