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An Easy Way to Elevate Your Grapes



But there are rewards for treating grapes as more — as an ingredient, something with multiple shades of flavor and the capacity to transform. Roast them in the oven until the skins pucker and split and the flesh grows slouchy, verging on collapse. What was once a high, reedy pitch of sweetness takes on body and depth. Taste and texture are almost one: jammy and louche, with a tinge of dark wine.

Raquel Villanueva Dang, the chef and an owner of Baby’s Kusina and Market in Philadelphia, roasts grapes with fresh thyme and mushroom seasoning (an umami-rich blend of pulverized dried mushrooms and salt), for an anchoring earthiness, and pairs them with hunks of sourdough and ricotta, whipped until it’s smooth and voluptuous. Ricotta toast is classic. The surprise here lies in the drizzle of balsamic vinegar, cooked down with honey and patis — Tagalog for fish sauce.

The dish, made for a pop-up dinner in October, Filipino American History Month, was Dang’s homage to the labor organizer Larry Itliong and the Filipino grape pickers, some 1,500 strong, who in 1965 walked off the fields in Delano in the Central Valley of California to demand better wages and working conditions. (The valley still produces almost all table grapes sold in the United States, relying on migrant labor.) Itliong, a farmer’s son from the Philippines, had a scrub of a mustache and a cigar ever in his mouth. In “Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike,” the journalist John Gregory Dunne describes him as “a tough, wiry little Filipino with a crew cut, thick black-rimmed glasses and three fingers missing on his right hand” — lost to a freight train when he was working on the railroad at age 15, newly arrived in America at the start of the Great Depression.

“I never did know what hunger was until I came to this country,” Itliong said in testimony before Congress in 1967. For decades, he roamed the West Coast, canning salmon and harvesting asparagus. To thwart protests, growers routinely tried to pit Filipino and Mexican workers against one another, so when the grape strike started in 1965, Itliong reached out to his fellow labor organizer Cesar Chavez to ask if his Mexican union would join the Filipino manongs (older brothers). Chavez put the question to a vote. It was unanimous: Yes.

For Dang, this sense of solidarity resonates. During the pandemic, she and her husband, Tam, a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force and the son of Vietnamese immigrants, founded a nonprofit with friends to build support between Asian Americans and other communities of color. “There was a lot of anti-Asian rhetoric, and we were seeing so much separation,” she says. “But we were each going through our own grieving.”

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