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Volume 15, Issue 46 ~ November 15 - November 21, 2007

From Pumpkin Pancakes
to Persimmon Pudding

What’s Thanksgiving without turkey, calf’s head or eel?

Drinking was limited, it must be remembered, by the sobriety which Society exacted of its gentlemen. Eating in Maryland was a continuous feast, not alone because of the prodigality of its table, but because of the warmth of its ever welcoming hospitality.

–Emily Post: 1932.

The above words, carefully chosen, were written as an introduction to Frederick Philip Stieff’s book Eat. Drink and be Merry in Maryland, and the contents are appetizing for the most part — though I’m thankful for two things:

1. When it was published I was only six, and my always protective mother wouldn’t have forced these gourmet recipes down my throat.

2. Also, the Burtons, being of dirt farmer stock, didn’t travel in the circles of the gentry other than when selling their crops at the market in the city, thus weren’t invited to society feasts with such centerpieces as Baked Calf’s Head.

During the Great Depression, we thought we were deprived when a big eel caught by my father was served stuffed as Easter dinner. It was at a time when things were exceptionally tough. My siblings and I sneaked away from the eel to make do with sweets and fruits in Easter baskets. Mother always made sure the five kids had filled baskets and stockings on the two big holidays, though the pantry was thin, as people said at the time.

Breaking Thanksgiving Tradition

Usually we enjoy Thanksgiving at a fancy hotel in Ocean City, expensive and lavish, and no need to worry about a stuffed eel plopped on the plate. But as wife Lois and I were hosting Alan Doelp and his wife Carol Benner to a pumpkin pancake breakfast, talk came up of joining them for Thanksgiving at their Linthicum home to better fit into my schedule the opening of the deer season two days later. That suited me just fine.

Until son-in-law Jon, daughter Heather and Alan started talking some fancy steak. Ye Gods! Thanksgiving without a turkey is like Christmas without a tree. Carol, Lois and I voted for the traditional share. Granddaughter Grumpy cast the deciding vote: No white or dark meat, Thanksgiving is to be red meat, as in beef. They are throwing us a bone, if a boneless turkey breast can be considered a bone. But we did get another concession — there would be stuffing, though it won’t be as tasty as the tried-and-true old-fashioned dressing roasted inside a gobbler — though better, I must admit, than atop an eel.

My Contribution to the Feast

In the spirit of the season, I’ve got a diospyros or two up my sleeve, in addition to a few other traditional treats for the table.

Alan is from Texas, where they don’t grow anything but presidents and cactus; a tree in the west of the Lone Star State is more rare than in Brooklyn, so he’s never tasted the fruit of the Gods.

That description is translated from the Greek diospyros, and methinks it’s indeed appropriate — that is, if you eat it when it’s fully ripe. Dig into one even a few days early and you’ll pucker up like you were going to kiss Madonna. It’s exceptionally tannic, astringent if you prefer. I’d say nasty. Wait a few days after it’s fully ripe, and the going will be too sloppy for a holiday spread. Plan on standing over the kitchen sink wearing a bib.

Dr. Frank Gouin, garden columnist for this newspaper, sent me a half dozen big Oriental persimmons from his orchard, and a friend from Kent County delivered some more, knowing I ate a few from a tree at Quaker Neck when we were waterfowling years ago. They ripen to a reddish orange in the cold months; the tree is ebony and hard, is used for handles on golf clubs, billiard cues and longbows. Indians used the seeds for coffee, the leaves for tea.

I approach persimmons with caution. You can’t even take a little bite of an unripe one to test it without puckering up. Legend has it a man who knew when persimmons were ripe and liked nothing better than a ripe one was ordered by the gods to go somewhere — and not stop on the way. He was doing fine — until he passed a tree with ripe persimmons.

He stopped and ate a few. Of course, the gods punished him, and when he died he was turned into a raccoon, which is why persimmons are a favorite food of ringtails and why they are one of few creatures capable of distinguishing without fail when one is ripe.

I’m thinking of a persimmon pudding, an old Thanksgiving favorite, but other options for this fruit with thick puffy flesh encased in a waxy skin are cakes, cookies and salads. When eaten like an apple, it is usually quartered first.

Also, I’m considering sending Alan a peck of black walnuts, sure that he’ll promise a cake with them. I want to see his face after he’s tried cracking open the first few, when I’ll remind him promises are promises. And I’m going to insist that the cranberry sauce has cranberries I can distinguish, not just a can of something smooth as Jell-O. There will be apple cider, probably worms included, none of that strained pasteurized stuff that tastes like stale Coke and has the kick of same.

Come hell or high water, I’m going to get tradition into the holiday at the Doelp’s.

I Draw the Line

Fifty years ago, a blue-blood hunter at the lavish dining hall of Woodmont Rod & Gun Club in Western Maryland told me of his planned traditional Thanksgiving dinner: baked calf’s head. I quickly lost my appetite.

In a half century I’d not heard again of this delicacy. Today while rummaging through Stieff’s book, I found an old recipe for one.

Upon finding myself with calf’s head atop the table, I’d pray for a hungry dog at my knees under the table. I’ve hidden the book; Alan is among those who likes to shock guests with his creative gourmet dishes, and there are no dogs in his house, only the fat cat Buddy, who I believe has more refined and sensitive taste buds.

After reading that recipe, beef and turkey breast don’t sound so bad after all. This Thanksgiving, I’ve something to be thankful for after all. Enough said …

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