So what’s your Thanksgiving dinner “must have”? What do you look forward to more than any other menu item in your annual Thanksgiving feast? Turkey? Dressing? Ham? Sweet potatoes? What leaves you saying, “It just isn’t Thanksgiving without . . .”?
I’ve used that question as a conversation starter with folks before. It helps if you are in the season of Thanksgiving. They don’t look at you quite as perplexed as they would in the middle of July. I like the question because 1) it makes people think (usually about something that makes them smile), and 2) it often produces not just an answer but a story. As in, “this is my favorite Thanksgiving food, and let me tell you why.” Sure to follow are tales of Grandma’s favorite recipe for a cherished dish, or a family tradition of feasting that goes back generations.
Have you come up with your “must have” food yet? How about a story to go with it?
Here’s mine: Its’ just not Thanksgiving dinner (or season) unless I have some persimmon pudding. That’s right. You can hold the turkey, and please hold the dressing – especially if it’s full of celery! You can hoard the pumpkin pie and enjoy the cranberries. Just pass the pudding.
Ready for the story? My Grandpa Cunningham lived in a farm house with at least three very benevolent persimmon trees in the side yard. I remember these to be large trees in my childhood that provided ample shade through the summer weeks, as they stood near the garden. By late summer and early fall they were laden with the most interesting green fruit. If you picked one of those green persimmons, as my older siblings often tried to get me to do, and you took a bite; well you’d be poised with a pucker that would last till your honeymoon.
As summer gave way to autumn the green persimmons began turning the telling orange of maturity – and they began to fall off those trees. And now, the side yard was a mine field of mess. “Ooey gooey” would hardly begin to express the squishy, slimy, slippery experience of stepping on an over ripe persimmon. In fact, strictly from a lawn care and hospitality perspective, there is little that is endearing about a ripe persimmon crop.
But good things come to those who muck through the mess, and so persimmon picking we would go. We picked the remaining fruit we could reach from the trees and rescued anything that was redeemable from the ground.
It’s now, in adulthood, that I realize my story suffers from a bit of amnesia. For you see I must confess that having participated in the harvest I had little more to do with the persimmons until they arrived baked in their savory pudding on the Thanksgiving table. I didn’t wash them, get my hands immersed in the work of pitting them, or run them through any form of food processing. I was oblivious to the culinary work required to transform those slimy, sticky pieces of goo into a masterful, delectable, mouth – watering serving of pudding. My mother did that – God bless her – I’m sure it was her very favorite job of the season! (Isn’t that how we kids think about our mothers? Even when we are 50?)
For twenty or more years I took persimmon pudding for granted. Never thought about how it got to the table. Never considered that it might be a labor intensive dish that not every cook just can’t wait to tackle. I just knew it was the culmination of my Thanksgiving feast experience. And then it happened. We moved.
My family moved away from our Midwest roots, left the persimmon country behind and its cooks with it. We moved 2500 miles west, to a land that knows nothing of persimmons filled with poor children who’ve never had the goo of a ripe orange persimmon squish between their toes. And more importantly, to a collective palette that has (for the most part) never experienced the exquisite delight of that dark grainy but amply moist dessert. How sad. How sad indeed.
So sad, in fact, that I began to lament – the loss, the absence, the despair of a Thanksgiving without persimmon pudding. Apparently my lament was noticed. I did not realize the extent to which I was whining, but our hostess for Thanksgiving dinner that year, unbeknownst to me, special ordered persimmons just so she could bake the very thing it just would not be Thanksgiving dinner without! Can you believe it? I could not. That is hospitality, kindness, generosity, grace, friendship and Christian love all wrapped up in one gesture words can hardly describe. I felt just like the Whos down in Whoville, only it wasn’t Christmas that came anyway – it was Thanksgiving that came 2500 miles away that day. It came, it came, it came just the same. And it has come many years since.
We’re back in the Midwest once again. Back near the source, but not just in terms of raw supply. Sure there are persimmons to be found – probably right on that very farm if I want to go pick them. But, more importantly, there are cooks, like our friend of years ago, who have the gift of baking those persimmons into the most delightful of all Thanksgiving desserts.
I guess my whining is habitual, because (and I’m only somewhat ashamed to admit this) the persimmon pudding cooks at church have been known to insist that I get a piece before it’s all gone at the annual Thanksgiving feast. God bless those who carry forth such noble, honorable and festive traditions as persimmon pudding!
So, what’s your Thanksgiving dinner must have? And better yet, what’s the story behind it? Please, do share.