Our farm’s ditches are full of purple passion flowers now. On these humid, 100-degree days, most of the growing things in our fields and gardens are struggling to hold on for dear life. They’re wilting or turning brown or just looking very, very haggard. But not the passion flowers. Here in the dog days of summer, they’re flaunting their alluring charms with wild, irrepressible abandon.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the story goes, Christian missionaries to the Americas named these flowering vines after the Passion, the days, in Christian tradition, between the Last Supper and Jesus’ crucifixion and death at Golgotha. In the missionaries’ eyes, the flower’s stigmata symbolized the nails in Jesus’ hands, the 12 petals stood for his apostles, the 5 anthers represented his wounds, and on like that.
We just called them “maypops” when I was growing up. To this day, I like to munch on the little fruits. My daughter and I shared one the other day on our farm in eastern North Carolina, and my brother and I often snack on them when we walk in the woods behind his house near the Cape Fear River.
In Western North Carolina, the Cherokee call the passion flower’s fruit ugawa, which translates as “old field apricots.” In traditional Cherokee society, cooks used—and may still use—the vines’ leaves, roots, and sweet, yellowish fruit for both food and medicine.
I’m thinking about the passion flowers back home because I’m in Cherokee, on the Qualla Boundary, the headquarters for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and this afternoon I read a recipe for “old field apricot drink.” It’s in an old cookbook called Cherokee Cooklore: Preparing Cherokee Foods. I found the cookbook here at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
A Cherokee school teacher, Miss Mary Ulmer, collected the recipes in 1949 and ’50. According to Miss Ulmer, Mrs. Aggie Lossiah gave her the recipe for old field apricot drink.
Mrs. Lossiah was the granddaughter of Chief John Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation during the Removal in the 1830s. She learned many of her traditional recipes from her grandmother when she was a little girl and living in a cave on the banks of the Tennessee River.
The recipe is very straightforward: you gather the fruit of purple passion flowers from plants in the wild, like the ones in my ditches back home. You can find the vines in ditch banks, roadsides, sandy thickets, and recently disturbed land almost anywhere.
According to Mrs. Lossiah, you hull out the seeds and pulp from the fruit, add a “tiny bit” of soda to help the seeds separate from the pulp, and boil them. Then you strain the juice from the seeds and pulp. Next, you add a little cornmeal and boil until it’s done. The recipe doesn’t indicate whether the drink should be served hot or cold, but I imagine it’s good either way.