Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Thanksgiving Message: Adventures with Persimmons

Here is something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving Day: agriculture. Maybe we shouldn’t be thankful for every aspect of agriculture; industrial agriculture is ruining the Earth. But I, at least, am thankful for thousands of years of ancestors who domesticated the crops and livestock that we enjoy today.

The origin of agriculture was a gradual process. Take, for example, wild grains. Wild grains have small seeds, which fall off of the stem, and which will not grow when you plant them (physiological dormancy). Had any gatherers tried to “invent” agriculture using wild grasses, the experiment would have failed. But after thousands of years of gathering, our ancestors unconsciously selected the grains that were biggest, that held onto the stems (since they were not interested in scrounging on the ground for grains), and which grew most readily. Then, when someone tried the agricultural experiment, it worked. Since that time, artificial selection for useful crop plants has continued unabated. A similar process happened with wild animals becoming livestock. Horses, it turns out, were first domesticated for their milk somewhere in what is now Kazakhstan. And the North American natives domesticated turkeys.

The difference between wild and domesticated foods became clear to me when I decided to eat some wild persimmons. I found a female tree (Diospyros virginiana has separate male and female trees) near Lake Texoma and gathered about 50 fruits last weekend. (Message to Karl: Don’t worry, I left some for you.) The fruits were so smooshy that I often left the calyx cap behind on the stem. Most of the fruits had ripened simultaneously. But a couple were still just a little hard. Including not-quite-ripe fruits in your foraging pile is a bad idea: even slightly unripe persimmons are legendary for their astringency. Wild fruits often do not ripen simultaneously, while domesticated fruits have been bred to do so. That’s the first thing to be thankful about.

Then I had to remove the seeds from the pulp. Were I just eating the fruits, I might have skipped this step. It is possible to pop a persimmon in your mouth, mash it around gently, and suck away the pulp from the seeds, then spit out the seeds. The wild animals that eat persimmons usually just swallow the whole fruit. This is because they are at the edge of starvation and don’t have time to pick out the fruits, especially if (like coyotes) they could not, or even if (like raccoon) they could. By swallowing the seeds, the animals disperse them to new and perhaps distant locations, and drop them out with little starter cultures of fertilizer.

But I decided to isolate the pulp from the seeds. This was a long process. Each fruit has about ten seeds, constituting about half of the fruit volume. A tenacious layer of pulp clings to these seeds, even when you squeeze as much pulp as possible from them. This usually meant squeezing each seed individually (do the math: 500 seeds). The pulp, meanwhile, clings to your hands like paste. It is orange-brown and scratchy (from sclerids). So you end up with the fruits separated into two fractions: the pulpy seeds, and the pulp on your hands. You have to scrape the pulp off of your hands into a container on a regular basis. For about fifty fruits, this took me about the length of one performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony plus a couple of baroque shorts. But I got a little over two cups of pulp. I then sucked the remaining pulp from the seeds before depositing them in my back yard where they might, someday, grow, after several years when the seed coat softens to the same extent that it would from spending just a few hours in a raccoon gut. With domesticated fruits, you can more easily separate pulp from seeds (including domesticated Japanese persimmons, Diospyros kaki). The pulp can be squeezed through a colander, for example. This will not work for many wild fruits, especially persimmons. Was it worth an hour and a half of dedicated work to get a couple of cups of wild persimmon pulp? Yes, if that was all that was available. But I found myself questioning the wisdom of my use of this time. That’s a lot of work and a lot of Mahler. Be thankful for domesticated fruits in which you can easily remove the seeds. That’s the second thing to be thankful about.

The next day, I felt a little nauseated. It was probably just end-of-semester stress. But perhaps, I thought, after all that work, the raw persimmon pulp was contaminated? Just a little. So here’s the third thing to be thankful about: we modern humans can cook our food. This is just one of the many benefits of cooking cited by Richard Wrangham in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. I hope 350 degrees will inactivate any bacteria that may be present. I decided to bake the persimmon pulp into bars. They are in the oven right now as I write. Get ready to copy and paste for a Thanksgiving dessert recipe:

Take about a half cup of smooshed persimmon pulp and mix it with 5 tablespoons of soft or melted butter, an egg, and a third of a cup of plain yogurt. Then blend in about a cup of flour, a half cup of sugar, and some baking powder, a little salt, and your choice of spices (something like cinnamon or nutmeg). Some pecans would have been nice, only I forgot them. Grease a small baking tin, put in the mixture, and bake it at 350 F until you think it’s done (the usual test is to insert a toothpick and see if it comes out clean). Notice, for the benefit of my lactose-intolerant wife and daughter: this recipe contains no untreated milk.

It’s almost done. Boy, this had better be good, after all that messy squishing.

The moment of truth! I will tell you how it tastes. If it makes me sick, watch for a dispatch tomorrow from St. Francis Hospital.

Verdict: Not bad. It does not have a strong persimmon flavor, which can at any rate be a little annoying. It is a little mooshy inside, but once again, not bad. It is definitely gritty with sclerids as only a wild fruit (or a pear) can be. I kept eating it.

I think I will use the rest of the batch of pulp in this manner for the Saturday family meal for the remaining descendants of Edd and Stella Hicks, sharecroppers in early twentieth century northeastern Oklahoma. I wonder if Stella gathered persimmons and cooked with them. There is no remaining family history to this effect, but it seems reasonable to suppose that she did. Persimmons, an aggressive early-successional clonally-spreading tree, would have been re-invading my grandfather Edd’s cleared farmland. This means that, after seventy years, persimmons have returned to our family.

1 comment:

  1. A colleague had a yard full of persimmon trees and wanted some worthy recipe to use his fruit bounty. He finally found a persimmon-bourbon brown bread. Definitely worth the effort!