Bites of History: Amazing grapes

There have been many interpretations of Mae West’s ad lib in her 1933 movie “I’m No Angel,” when she famously says to her maid, “Beulah, peel me a grape.”

Regardless of what the queen of double entendres really meant, one thing is certain: The grape was a culinary celebrity thousands of years before it made any appearance on the silver screen.

Cultivation began between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago in the Near East, around northern Iran between the Black and Caspian seas.

Since yeast occurs naturally on grape skins, winemaking went hand-in-hand with this first evidence of cultivation, with records showing that, also some 8,000 years ago, wine was made in the Eurasian country of Georgia.

There are roughly three kinds of grapes: wine grapes, table grapes for eating fresh and raisin grapes for drying.

We know ancient Romans grew all these varieties. And aside from honey, grape sugar was the only practical and easily obtainable sweetener Romans possessed.

It’s not certain whether the Greeks gave France the grape or the Gauls themselves brought them home from Italy. But once this member of the Vitaceae family got there, the French prized them highly, so much so that when English King Richard the Lionhearted was but a lowly French noble, he ordered that the theft of a bunch of grapes be punished by a fine of five sous or the loss of an ear.

Grape seeds have been found in the New World in Native American sites going back to 1800 B.C., and grapes greeted the Vikings when they explored eastern North America long before Columbus.

Then in 1554, Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony in North Carolina documented they found wild muscadines, the tough-skinned, disease-resistant grape that grows so well in Louisiana and which is now commonly known as the “Grape of the South.”

When Europeans began settling North America in the 1600s, they brought their grapevines with them.

But the greatest event in the early history of American grapes was the successful 1850s cultivation of the Fox grape. This native variety, when compared with cold-sensitive European grapes, had a thick skin, woolly leaves and musky fruit, and eventually became the parent of the Concord.

Today, California produces about 99 percent of commercially grown grapes in the U.S., and the quip from Hollywood’s famous blonde vixen lives on in pop culture.

But the grape doesn’t need Mae West’s help to be loved. We’ll always have a soft spot for wine, raisins and quick cool snacks, and that affection makes the grape a superstar on its own.

Sources:; Root, Waverley, Food (1980);;