Grape Expectations

The Music Man told us that we really ought to give Iowa a try. This summer, my family and I listened.

In August, we headed to the Iowa State Fair, an agricultural, recreational, and gastronomical extravaganza that draws about a million people to Des Moines each year.

We saw prizewinning giant boars (topping 1,000 pounds) and monstrous pumpkins (topping the boars). We watched a sheep auction, witnessed a llama costume contest and the state horseshoe tossing semifinals, and saw one-hour-old calves. I participated in a quilting bee and sat on a bale of hay with a strapping blond farm boy from Iowa State who taught me how to milk a cow.

Like the livestock we observed, we also spent much of the fair grazing. We ate corn dogs, pickle dogs (a slice of pastrami slathered in cream cheese and wrapped around a pickle), blooming onions (if you don’t know what this is, Google Images search it right now), a towering potato chip spiral made of a single unbroken potato, fried cheese curds, fried macaroni and cheese, and fried ice cream. We didn’t brave the notorious fried butter on a stick, but we did eat fried Oreos for breakfast one day, so I think we deserve full fair food cred (and high cholesterol).

Perhaps most exciting of all, we are now official Iowa State Fair ribbonists.

On a whim, my brother, sister, and I signed up for the fair’s grape stomping contest. Shocked when our team was actually drawn from a long list of would-be contenders, we realized right away that the other two teams actually knew what they were doing. The closest I’d ever come to stomping a grape was watching Lucy do it on TV when I was six.

Surreptitiously following our opponents’ example, my sister and I removed our shoes and stood beside our knee-high wooden barrel on the crude wooden stage. Our brother took a place below the stage, where a thin spout at the bottom of our barrel led into a waiting bucket. On the emcee’s order, we dumped 20,000 grapes into the barrel and jumped in.

Then we stomped. And stomped. And stomped. Three minutes feels like a very long time when you’re running in place in a wooden barrel, trying not to bang knees with your sister and cringing at each stem that jabs into the soles of your bare feet. Soon, I figured out that by stepping on the balls of my feet, I got more frequent satisfying splats of grapes bursting out of their skins and fewer stem stabs. Our barrel began to fill with flattened grape gel and a clear liquid, the juice we were supposed to evince from the fruit with our feet. While Emily and I jogged frantically in the barrel, our brother Ben filled the role that we learned was called “the mucker.” Using a plastic bendy straw, he diligently tried to clear the grape skins from the spout so that the juice could flow out into the bucket.

When the buzzer sounded to tell us that our stomping time was done, we entered the next stage: mucking. Someone in the audience watching this fascinating entertainment realized at this point that our team was clearly new to pedalian viniculture skills. He came up to the front and started yelling instructions at us on how to muck.

Under our new, self-appointed coach’s guidance, Emily and I hoisted the heavy barrel at a steep angle and attempted to press the grape solids against the back of the barrel with our hands so that they wouldn’t jam the spigot. Ben worked the straw. Little by little, the juice trickled out, but our progress was frustratingly slow. Repeatedly, my sister joked, “What the muck?”

At the end of the three-minute mucking period, we had eked out 11 centimeters of fresh-stomped liquid into our juice-catching bucket, a measly harvest that was clearly beaten by the other two teams. The winners had produced a full 18 centimeters of grape juice. Regardless, we proudly accepted our third-place ribbons, embossed in gold with “Iowa State Fair.”

If you’re curious, the juice that we’d made with our feet was promptly thrown away. Though the technique of stomping grapes to make wine has been around since the second century BCE, the practice was banned due to sanitary concerns by most Western countries decades ago.

Sticky and giggling and exhausted, we washed ourselves off with the waiting hoses. The next day, we left the fair, and the day after that, we left Iowa. My brother and I headed here to Cambridge, a land with food almost as unhealthy and an array of activities almost as dizzying but not nearly so many cows.

Here at Harvard, we spend most of our time working with our heads. We write, we solve, we speak, we think. But the exhilaration of briefly dabbling in an exercise that I’d never tried before served as a powerful reminder of the value of physical labor—of working with your feet.

The school year is starting to pick up now. Course selection is basically over, even for those of us who treat add/drop period as an extension of shopping week, and problem sets and papers are returning in full force. As we settle into the well-worn routine of working with our minds, I encourage you to put your feet to work sometimes as well.

I’ve always loved my shifts at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter for that reason. After a week of poring over books and crafting sentences, it feels great to use my feet and hands, standing over a stove making dozens of grilled cheese sandwiches. So hike, bike, or run. Seek out a way to use your muscles as a volunteer for a charitable group or as a player for your House IM team. Choose an issue you care about, find an activism group, and take a stand.

Sometimes, you have to put your best foot forward—even if that means jumping into a vat of 20,000 grapes.

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