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Nature's Original Fast Food

Around a lot of houses, the most popular fruits with the kid set are grapes and bananas. Period. The peak of grape season,fortunately, coincides with the beginning of school. For those stuck with packing lunches every day, having grapes at the ready is no small potatoes. (Every parent learns that bananas get yucky in a lunch bag.)

According to recent surveys, kids prefer grapes over such snack foods as potato chips, brownies and pretzels. Some even go so far as to say that grapes are their favorite fruit. What's more, grapes make a very kid-friendly snack for lunch bags or after-school treats, no matter what time of year.

Which merely confirms what humankind itself discovered at a very early age (some say Bronze): The grape is sweet, refreshing, portable and about as easy to eat or cook as anything growing.

Except for the occasional seed, this is the original fast food. Consequently grapes became one of the oldest of cultivated plants, and through the millenniums the cluster of grapes has come to signify luxury and plenty from ancient Rome to modern harvest festivals.

Today, adults who are looking for ways to eat quickly and more nutritiously will find that grapes add vitamins as well as flavor and eye appeal to dozens of meals, from brown-bag lunches to salads and main courses.

Although grapes are available year-round, the prime season is in early fall when prices are lowest and continues into the holidays, making now a good time to experiment with grapes.

Americans are eating more grapes now, at least seven pounds per capita. Almost all U.S. grapes are grown in California. Of the 5-million tons picked each year, however, only 10 percent are table grapes (the use for the rest is evenly divided between producing wine and raisins).

Nutritionally, the vitamin C and fiber content are a grape's best recommendation, while its sugar content is probably its only caution. Still, 10 grapes contain about 36 calories, about half the content of an apple. (Do remember to be careful with infants and toddlers: Whole grapes can get stuck in small throats, so cut the grapes in half.)

Grapes are best when cold, so store them in the refrigerator and don't wash them until you are ready to eat them. They will last up to a week if refrigerated.

Here are some hints on how to serve them:

Freeze grapes to make hot-weather snacks.

Use as a garnish with poultry and roasts.

Set out grapes with apples and cheese

Add to morning cereal or yogurt or peanut butter toast.

Cut in half and let kids decorate cookies or cakes.

Add to salads, rice, pasta or stuffings. Grapes go surprisingly well with a number of food and flavors, such as chicken, cucumber, mint, light mustard and cream.

How do you pick a decent bunch? Kathleen Nave of the California Table Grape Commission has some tips:

Choose bunches in which the stems are green and pliable.

The grapes should be firmly attached to the stems. If you pick up the bunch and the grapes fall off, choose a different bunch.

The color of the bunch should be uniform and true to the variety of grape. If some of the bunch is yellow green and the rest white green, choose a different bunch.

Grapes have been popular and successful around the world, although Western Europeans identify them most readily with ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Biblical lands. While the vinifera varieties that began in the Caspian Sea area did spread throughout the Mediterranean area, other varieties like Concord and scuppernong were native to the Americas. Still, vinifera varieties provide most of the table grapes and wines today.

Should you buy grapes is a question of a different nature. Because table grapes are picked when ripe, they are labor-intensive and employ more than 100,000 farm workers at the height of the season.

Controversy between those workers and the growers made Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers' grape boycott a major cause in the 1960s, but the controversy has faded considerably since then. The original boycott over labor issues ended in 1975, but Chavez renewed a call for a boycott in the mid-1980s, saying pesticide on grapes endangered workers and consumers.

In the last two years Chavez has urged boycotts of grapes by California shoppers and recently appealed to Asian consumers not to buy grapes. Chavez critic Bruce Obbinka, who has headed the growers' group for 25 years, says that United Farm Workers has lost its grape contracts and that growers have substantially improved relations with the workers.

"I think they (the growers) learned their lesson in 1975," Obbinka said. He also said the grape farms have led the way in reducing pesticide use and pointed out that in 1991 grapes had the opposite problem: black widow spiders found in grapes.