Indian Summer…it’s quite a poetic term, but what exactly does it mean?
Generally, it’s describing the warm clear weather when the leaves have changed (but not fallen) and the first snow. Or, we could say it’s the period of time between the first frost of the year and the first snow. There are various schools of thought on what Indians had to do with the name ‘Indian Summer.’ It may be because harvest time was when the Native Americans harvested crops. Or, it’s been said that in colonial times, Indian raids on European settlements subsided during this time of the year.
Either way, the frost heralds the last part of the harvest season for farmers. Actually, harvest season begins in the summer with hay-making, wheat and oat threshing and so forth. Northeastern Ohio is now in “Indian Summer.” The first frost in our locale was October 1, bringing the end of the growing season.
Before the frost, many farmers had been chopping corn to fill their silos (the tall round buildings seen on many farms). Generally silo-filling is started while the plants are still green, but just beginning to dry around the roots of the plant. Corn that has been frosted needs to be chopped immediately. Once the frost burns the leaves, the corn begins to dry down rapidly. The kernels lose their plumpness, turn hard and have a dimple in the top. Some farmers can take a kernel and chew it to determine whether it is ‘fit’ to chop.
Chopped corn is loaded into a silage blower – it has a big fan that actually blows the finely chopped leaves and corn up a vertical chute into the silo. Once the silo is full, the silage will settle and compress. The corn and leaves ferment a bit, but the compression helps preserve the fodder. Good silage has a distinctive sweet smell, but retains its texture and nutrients. In the winter, the corn fodder is loaded out through doors in the silo and fed to cattle.
Making Grape Juice
With the arrival of frost is another fall activity: picking grapes. Many residents here, both on farms and in town, have grapevines. Although there are many varieties of grapes, the most desired type is the Concord grape, a dark blue grape that has excellent taste and sweetness. Concord grapes typically ripen in late September or early October and make excellent homemade grape juice and pie fillings.
The traditional way of making grape juice is to put whole grapes, sugar and boiling water in a canning jar and immediately can them – no mashing involved. As the juice ages, the flavor and color of the grapes flows into the water to make a refreshing winter treat. However, the newest way of making juice is to use a steamer – it’s less work with sorting the grapes – and makes a concentrated juice that is ready to drink on the spot.
The way of making a grape pie depends on who you talk to – there are lots of recipes out there. The old way is to sort the grapes and “hull” them (separating the skins and insides). Then, cook the hulls and seeds, running them through a sieve or strainer. The last step is to cook the remaining juice with the skins, sugar and a little thickener. It makes a good pie but it’s a lot of work.
If you’d like to try making grape pie, you can find a recipe in the Mennonite Community Cookbook, which is full of old-style Mennonite recipes. Or if you’d like a taste but not the work, grape pie can be found at Der Dutchman Restaurant in Walnut Creek, Dutch Valley Restaurant in Sugarcreek, or Der Dutchman in Plain City.