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Tolkien on HBO

I resisted watching this, because I was afraid that the film had turned the story of Tolkien’s life into yet another costume romance for, and about, twenty-somethings set in all the usual sorts of glamorous British settings. In fact, it is that, and it requires that we re-imagine the quintessential white-haired and tweedy Oxford professor as a studly (but already tweedy) young man playable by Nicholas Hoult. But it turned out to be more.

There can be no doubt that Tolkien’s early friendships, and the loss of so many of those friends in World War I, are to be found between the lines of The Lord of the Rings. This screenplay gets a bit deeper into the texts than I expected, and it spends just enough time on philology — and in those photogenic Oxford libraries — to shed light on the lifelong scholarship that underpins Tolkien’s stories. Derek Jacobi as the linguist Joseph Wright — whose life story is just as interesting as Tolkien’s — ought to lead to a reprint of Wright’s 1910 Grammar of the Gothic Language. (I’d buy it.) Twenty-somethings could learn a lot from this film about the history of the English language, and why that history is worth caring about.

An obnoxious blogger who calls himself “the Imaginative Conservative” wrote last year: “I expressed my fears and misgivings about the new film, Tolkien, which focuses on the writer’s youth. I was concerned that the film would convey a homosexual and anti-Catholic agenda, weaving a fabric of lies of which Wormtongue himself would be proud. I cited the track record of the two screenwriters, David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, and predicted the worst.”

But, after seeing the film, he wrote: “The homosexual agenda is inserted incognito in the characterization of Tolkien’s friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith, but in such a subtle manner that only the cognoscenti will notice it.”

Such is the conservative mind. I’d put it differently. The screenwriters encrypted — and in a historically accurate way — the other romance in the film so that it would go right over the heads of conservative churchlings. To everyone else, it should be very clear. There is in fact a good bit of scholarship supporting the possibility that Geoffrey Bache Smith was in love with Tolkien. Smith died during the war at the age of 22. Tolkien later published a volume of Smith’s poems. In the last scenes of the film, Tolkien is meeting with Smith’s mother. “I never knew Geoffrey,” she says. “Was he happy? Please. Tell me. Did he know love?” Hoult looks at her, and the camera searches his face. But he doesn’t answer.

Hence I upgrade this film’s grade from a C to an A. It’s quite an achievement when the subtext of a story can quietly hold its own against the text, while as a bonus bringing the roots of the English language to our attention.

Back from the Dark Ages: Leeks

Leeks, where have you been all my life? As I was making yet another pot of leek and potato soup today, I found myself wondering: When did I first see leeks? Why have I never seen them growing? Just when did they start showing up in grocery stores this time of year? I don’t really recall, but leeks are relatively new to me. As much as I love onions, surely I wouldn’t have wasted much time trying them out. I don’t recall ever seeing them in California, either.

The Wikipedia article has some clues: “Because of their symbolism in Wales … , they have come to be used extensively in that country’s cuisine. Elsewhere in Britain, leeks have come back into favor only in the last 50 years or so, having been overlooked for several centuries.” Nothing is said about leeks in America. So more research is in order.

As for growing them, I probably won’t, for the same reason I decided not to grow garlic. Leeks (and garlic) like to grow for up to 180 days, it seems. That’s too long to take up space in the garden, especially for a plant as large as leeks.

Leek and potato soup is my favorite soup all of a sudden. It’s amazing how a vegetable so green and rich with fiber is so creamy in a soup.

According to the Wikipedia article, leeks were known in ancient Egypt. The Romans ate them. Our word leek, says Wikipedia (and my dictionary confirms it) comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, which makes leeks that much more special to me: “The name ‘leek’ developed from the Old English word lēac, from which the modern English name for garlic also derives.”

Leek and potato soup

The entry for lēac in my Anglo-Saxon dictionary

A dry history of interesting times

The Oxford History of Anglo-Saxon England. Sir Frank Stenton, Oxford University Press, 1943. 766 pages.

Robin Hood? King Arthur? We all know the myths about Anglo-Saxon England. But if we were called upon to name a fact or two about Anglo-Saxon England, most of us would just scratch our heads.

For a long time, I wrongly assumed that little is known about Anglo-Saxon England. That’s not true. But first, let’s define that period as roughly from 450 A.D. (as Rome’s influence in Britain petered out) until 1066 (the Norman Conquest). If a historian writing in 1943 can write a dense 766-page tome on this period, then obviously it’s not true that little is known. So I will amend my view: Little that is interesting is known about Anglo-Saxon England.

To be sure, a more interesting and more modern book than this one could be written on Anglo-Saxon England. Modern historians concern themselves with more interesting things than earlier historians. (Frank Stenton was born in 1880.) But, if a similarly thorough book on Anglo-Saxon England exists, I have not yet found it. Maybe that’s why this book has gone through multiple editions (1943, 1947, 1971) and multiple printings (1975, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987). People still buy it.

My No. 1 question about Anglo-Saxon England would be: What might it have been like to live then? Using some imagination to interpolate and extrapolate from what is known about this period, it’s not impossible to make some guesses. Stenton, certainly, had no choice but to limit himself to the available sources — the monk Gildas, for example (c. 500 – c. 570), and the better-known Bede (c. 672 – 735). Here are some less-than-thrilling chapter titles:

The Ascendancy of the Mercian Kings
The English Church from Theodore to Boniface
The Tenth-Century Reformation
The Reorganization of the English Church

Other chapters are somewhat more helpful:

Learning and Literature in Early England
The Conversion of the English People
The Structure of Early English Society

What might it have been like to live then? It was a dangerous time to live. Everyone was exposed to wars and raids. Everyone needed the protection of one of the many little kings. People paid for that protection with the produce of the land, their labor, and military service when required. Most people, of course, were peasants, who mostly lived in villages and subsisted through cooperative farming. As kings granted land and special rights to abbeys and peers, the English manorial system, and an aristocracy, gradually developed.

Vast amounts of effort was spent on churchification. Popes, working from Rome, made repeated efforts to convert the pagans, assert papal power, and establish churches and monasteries. New bishops and their churches popped up all over and gradually grew richer. At first, there was some organized pagan resistance. That resistance steadily died out. I think it would be safe to say that, by the time of the Norman Conquest, paganism in Britain was dead, except in isolated places such as the Scottish Highlands.

Stenton occasionally uses the word “pagan,” but usually he uses the words heathen and heathenism. What this reflects, of course, is the unquestioning assumption of earlier generations that the church brought moral progress and nobler lives to the heathens. I say fiddlesticks. But that’s the way it is in older histories. One has to read older histories as a kind of history of history.

To try to get a feel for what is actually known about this time and place — England during the Dark Ages — by no means makes that time and place less appealing to the imagination. If you want castles and chivalry, you’ll have to wait a bit. But if I had a time machine, good shoes, warm clothing, a squad of bodyguards, and all my vaccinations up to date, this is one of the first places I’d want to go for a visit.

Could it happen again?

Decent Americans are horrified by the fact that 45 percent of American voters would vote for a con man like Donald Trump. Having lived in the American South for much of my life and having known many Republican jackasses, and having observed as these people have been manipulated and misled since the televangelist days, I believe I’m as qualified as anybody to describe what’s wrong with Trump voters and to make some guesses about how dangerous they will be in the future.

I have written here in the past about what’s wrong with authoritarians, whose moral and cognitive defects find a home with their own kind in the Republican Party and evangelical churches. I have argued that authoritarians are not just morally different, they are morally defective. I have argued that one of their most dangerous defects is the inability to judge character. A short way of saying it is that they have low moral IQ’s. Incapable of understanding the thinking of people with higher moral intelligence, they project their own inner ugliness onto others. They seem to truly believe, as they try to steal an election, that the people they hate are stealing the election from them. For an academic view of what’s wrong with authoritarians, I recommend the work of Bob Altemeyer, a Canadian psychologist who made a career of studying authoritarians. It was Altemeyer, for example, who described the creepy submissiveness of authoritarians, the factor that makes them crave a Big Man (it’s usually a man) to submit to and to be commanded by. You see this craving for submissiveness in their churches, too — the deep need to grovel before an all-powerful god and to “submit to God’s will.”

Yes, they have always been with us. But how dangerous they are outside their own families depends on who winds them up and leads them. Their abilities are too limited to self-organize. Most of them, with modest natural gifts and modest educations, never achieve much. Even in small, localized aggregations such as a lynch mob, you will find a leader, and the rest are just a mob. That leader will be one of the worst of them, someone with a special gift for incitement and manipulation. Comparing Trump’s Republican Party with the Nazi Party is entirely fair. Psychologically they’re the same people. The big difference is that Trump is incompetent, and he didn’t have a plan. But Hitler was a genius, and he did have a plan, which is why the scale of Hitler’s catastrophe was so much greater. In the U.S., it would be interesting to track the behavior of authoritarian mobs all the way back to the Civil War. But I’m not a historian, so I would presume to track them based only on what I’ve seen in my lifetime. My view is that though morally defective people are always with us, they become a threat to all of us only when they have a Big Man such as a Hitler or a Trump.

They were certainly active, and violent, during the Civil Rights era. But I was just a boy then. It was during the 1980s, during the rise of televangelists, that I really began to notice them. Jim and Tammy Bakker were a classic example. It was clear that people could be separated into two categories — those who would laugh and see instantly that Jim and Tammy Bakker were frauds and grifters, and those who saw God in them and sent them money. The televangelist era, though, was just a business operation, a way of separating the gullible from their money.

The danger to the nation began in 1996, with Fox News. Fox News — owned, of course, by a billionaire oligarch — went to work, profitably, creating a propaganda narrative that would turn the gullible into an angry base for the Republican Party. That base was too dim to realize that they never got anything out of it, other than scapegoats, fears, the bliss of their hatred and rage, and solidarity with their fellow authoritarians. The true agenda was the agenda of plutocrats and oligarchs. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. Authoritarians ate it up, feasting on right-wing red meat that would gag their dogs. When Trump came along, they finally had their Big Man. They got their hands on the highest office in the land — the presidency. To do it, they all had to work together — the propaganda arm (Fox News), the Republican Party, authoritarian churches, and just enough gullible voters to achieve minority rule. The rest is history, and I need not try to recite it here.

So the question is, can it happen again?

In a Nov. 6 piece in the Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci writes that America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent. He is right. And his warning implicitly acknowledges that the gullible masses are dangerous only when they have a Big Man. But the Big Man can’t do it alone. As in 2016, a high level of organization is required, involving Fox News and the Republican Party, in addition to enraged authoritarian voters and a Big Man.

I’m of the view that what Trump does hereafter doesn’t matter. Trump is doomed, though someone will try to take his place.

What matters now is: What will Fox News do? What will the Republican Party do? Will they find and anoint another Big Man and try to pull off another 2016? Or will 2020 have taught them that that won’t work anymore, because decent America is onto them? I have no predictions on that, because neither Fox News nor the Republican Party is rational. If they were, they’d modify their strategies to try to appeal to a larger number of voters and stop trying to maintain minority rule. They surely must realize that everything they did during the 2020 election to fire up the base backfired by motivating decent Americans to see the emergency and go vote.

With Trump doomed (and headed to prison), the vast right-wing conspiracy is like a snake without a head. The useless thrashing and rattling are now dominating the news. If they try for a repeat of 2016, then we must wait to see whether they are able to find and raise up another Big Man. If they do, then we must take him down, quick and early. We were far too slow in recognizing the danger of Donald Trump, because to decent people Trump (like the early Hitler) is just a clown and con man.

Goodbye, Donald Trump. Your doom will be a joy to watch, as justice and the law and your debts catch up with you. As you go to join your good friend Adolph and wait for your children and your party lords to come burn with you, try not to let the gates of hell hit you in the ass on the way in.

One of the services that the church provides to the sorriest and most demented of human beings is that it allows them to believe that they are morally superior to the people they hate.


Georgia on our minds

It’s Friday night, and we’re still waiting for the media to call the election. Once we’ve won the White House, all civilized eyes will turn to the Georgia Senate runoffs in January, America’s only hope for a Congress that will work with President Biden.

Everyone seems to be listening to some version of “Georgia on My Mind” tonight.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6 …

Jake Gyllenhaal in “October Sky”

The past two days have been among the most stressful and miserable days I can remember, as we all wait to find out whether the American democracy will live or die. I don’t plan to write about this until the election has been called, and after I’ve had a little time to think about what comes next.

For tonight, though, while waiting for votes to be counted in Pennsylvania, my therapy will be watching “October Sky,” a very fine feel-good movie. If the counting goes on long enough, I might even have to watch “Love, Actually,” even if that’s a Christmas movie.

Gothic weather for a gothic election

Source: Screen shot from, 8 a.m. EDT, Oct. 29, 2020. The remnants of Hurricane Zeta, moving northeast, will pass over Acorn Abbey in a few hours.

Here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we’d be hard pressed to say which time of year is the best. The two choices are pretty clear, though: October or early May. October is the gothic month: cool air, the first frost, dry leaves blowing and rattling, pumpkins, long nights, the first fire in the fireplace, voles stealing insulation to line their nests, insects trying to sneak inside for the winter, soups on the stove, and, finally, Halloween, the most gothic day of the year.

Early voting started in North Carolina on Oct. 15, and I’ve been putting in six-day weeks as a poll observer. I’m taking today off, though, because few people will vote in this heavy rain and heavy wind, and I wanted to stay home and savor such a gothic day.

As a poll observer, I’ve been sitting in a chair near the voter check-in desk, watching hundreds of voters file by in the little suburban town of King, North Carolina — a place with hardly any non-white minorities, but lots of churches and lots and lots of Republicans. I don’t dare make any predictions, after the traumatic election day of 2016. But if this election goes the way I expect it to go — a landslide against the Republican Party and Trump — then the people of King don’t quite know what’s about to hit them. I think they suspect it, because quite a few of them come into the church gymnasium where they’re voting testy and not wearing masks. They find it necessary to smart off with a Republican talking point to a poll worker loud enough to be heard. A few days ago, someone left a pile of chicken bones underneath a Biden-Harris sign out in the electioneering area. Occasionally, insults fly, and petty complaints get filed with the county board of elections. There are rumors — unsubstantiated — about what one of the several militias might do on election day.

I’ve been involved in local politics for going on eight years now. Never before have I seen the Democratic Party so well organized at the state and national level. In 2016, operatives for the Hillary Clinton campaign asked for office space at Democratic headquarters in our little red county, and soon they vanished, the thin staff redeployed to urban areas where there were more votes to be had. But, this year, we have Democratic operatives falling all over us. It seems the word went out months ago that lawyers were needed in swing states such as North Carolina to protect the vote. I’m reporting to a young Harvard lawyer who is responsible for a 10-county district.

These lawyers arrived early (in August), and they have stayed with us. A couple of days ago, one lawyer (a volunteer from Washington state), troubled by the aggressiveness of local Republicans, asked to be reassigned to a different county, because she feared for her safety here. But another lawyer was immediately assigned to take her place. The Democratic Party and these lawyers have built tracking and scheduling systems for poll watching at all 100 North Carolina counties. Normally, as a county-level Democratic operative, I’d make my own decisions about where to be on election day. But this year I’m just a local volunteer in this statewide operation. The cavalry is here.

I’ve also been attending the two weekly meetings of the county board of elections, at which the board members open and approve absentee ballots. During each meeting, a lawyer is assigned to be in touch with me by telephone and text messages. After each meeting, I file a detailed report about how the meeting went and how many absentee ballots were approved (or disapproved, if any). A local Democratic lawyer also is attending most of these meetings.

Republicans are trying like hell to suppress the vote and steal the election in North Carolina, but, from what I’ve seen, they’ll have a very hard time doing it. Just yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against efforts by North Carolina Republicans to shorten the window for counting absentee ballots received by mail. Republicans, certainly, are turning out to vote. But Republican efforts to suppress the vote seem to have backfired, as all across the country people are turning out in record numbers to vote early.

I have a four-year-old bottle of champagne left over from Election Day 2016. The bottle was never opened, for obvious reasons. Next week on Nov. 3, it’s going to be chilled and ready. The rain and wind are picking up now. Radar now shows that I’m in a red zone for heavy rain. The brownouts are starting. I’ll probably lose power today. The forecast for election day, though, is for sunny and cool, with a high of 58. It should be one of those autumn days with a golden sunset.

Republican chicken bones under a Biden-Harris sign, King, North Carolina

хор мальчиков хорового училища им.М.И.Глинки

Russia, just now — as has often been the case — is poorly regarded and even feared in the West. But we might do well to keep in mind that the Russian people and the Russian oligarchs in the Kremlin are two very different Russias.

While watching a great many music videos on YouTube for a future post on the hymn “Abide With Me,” I came across this. It speaks for itself, though I don’t understand a word of it. Maybe, someday, we in the West will be able to engage the people of Russia without being turned aside by their terrible governments.

“хор мальчиков хорового училища им.М.И.Глинки,” I believe, translates to the Glinka Choral College Boys’ Choir.

A musical note: This piece keeps us contained almost to the point of suffocation in minor harmonies. But it ends softly on a major chord — a tierce de Picardie, or Picardy third, leaving us, at the end, with a feeling of hope.

In the end, what did they gain?

These photos were lifted from Facebook, sources unknown.

There are, I would say, five classes of Trumpers:

1. The Trumps themselves

2. Elites, such as U.S. senators, who enabled and shielded Trump

3. Those who voted for Trump in 2016

4. Those who are voting for Trump again in 2020

5. The super-rich, who got the tax breaks

What did each group gain, from four years spent ripping America apart so that the Republican Party could lie its way through one last election before ending up on the trash heap of history?

1. The Trumps: They got to indulge their narcissism and talk their trash in the spotlights and on television, living free in the White House at taxpayer expense. They got to act out their delusions of grandeur among the elites of Europe, too crass and too dull to grasp that they were making fools of themselves and were being laughed at. The Trump children cut some good deals in global markets and put millions of dollars in their pockets. Trump, broke and deeply in debt, reduced to having to grub for a measly thousand here and million there, was able to hold off his final (and seventh and most spectacular) backruptcy, not to mention holding off the law and the courts, for four more years.

But thus passes the glory of the world. Because when this vile family is at last ejected from the White House, they will quickly become a family in tatters and ruins. Not to mention in prison. No wonder Trump has started to joke at his rallies about leaving the country. Yesterday, at a rally in Georgia, he said: “Could you imagine if I lose?… I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country, I don’t know.”

That would be the wise course for the Trump family, if they can borrow enough gas money to fly the Trump 747 to Russia before it’s repossessed. Why did they wait so long? Why didn’t they cut a deal when they could have gotten better terms than prison?

2. Elites and senators: It’s less than three weeks before the election, for heaven’s sake. Why now, when what Trump is has been clear for years? Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, in a “town hall” conference call on Oct. 16, expressed the new senatorial wisdom brilliantly:

“The way he kisses dictators’ butts…. The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership. The way he treats women and spends like a drunken sailor…. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists…. If young people become permanent Democrats because they’ve just been repulsed by the obsessive nature of our politics, or if women who were willing to still vote with the Republican Party on 2016 decide that they need to turn away from this party permanently in the future, the debate is not going to be — you know, Ben Sasse, why were you so mean to Donald Trump? It’s going to be, what the heck were any of us thinking that selling a TV-obsessed narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea? It is not a good idea….”

So, senators, what do you have to show for it? You are within an inch of destroying the American democracy. You’ve helped to drive a stake through the heart of the Republican Party. You’re probably going to lose the Senate. Some of you will lose your seats. And you’ve all lost your souls, though most of you no doubt are richer than you were four years ago. Why didn’t you cut a deal months ago to get Trump to go away, when you still had time to put up a half-decent candidate?

3. Those who voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020: Some of us have known all along what you are — your gullibility, your meanness, your sorry religion, your ignorance of the world and your ignorance even of the causes of your own squalid cirumstances. Now the whole world knows, because you put yourselves on display. If the election on Nov. 3 buries you in a landslide, then you will only have gotten what you deserve and brought upon yourselves. May you savor the aftertaste of your years of gloating, because that’s all you’ve gained. Are you better off? Other than doing your bullying and trash-talking for you, what has Trump done for you? What in the world ever made you think that a narcissistic New York City crime lord and con man gives a blip about you or would ever let the likes of you into places like Mar-a-Lago?

4. Those who voted for Trump in 2016 but not in 2020: There is some hope for you, if you reflect long and hard on how you were deceived and misled, and if you learn how not to let such a thing happen to you again. But look what you brought upon yourselves and your country. You share the responsibility for that. Can you find ways to make amends? Start by turning your back on the Republican Party and never voting for any Republican ever again.

5. The super-rich, who got the tax breaks. Congratulations. Your plan worked. You raked in more and more billions and paid no tax on it for four more years. You continued to manipulate democracy, but you revealed that your intent is to kill it. If you can’t find a new way for a minority of easily deceived voters to hold both the Senate and the White House, and whole new lines of lies and propaganda that can enrage and deceive 45 percent of the population (which is all you need since you have gerrymandering and the electoral college working for you), then you’re done. And, thanks to the last four years, millions of people who previously weren’t paying attention now realize who truly owns, and runs, the country, and who is eating their lunch. They’ll be beating down the doors of their representatives in Washington, demanding that you be taxed out of existence.

Four precious years have been lost. We’ve been backsliding, making no progress against the true existential threats of our age — inequality and environmental catastrophe. Progress will be harder now, because Trump and Trumpers have stacked the courts with theocrats and autocrats corrupt enough to cut a deal. Those who have held us back have shown us — in fact they have rubbed it in our faces — what they are and what they want to do. They deserve to be left behind, given only the barest minimum of the goods that law and fairness and decency require — goods of which they actively and ruthlessly deprive others. They deserve hardball now, at the other end of the stick. They’ve forfeited any claim for being heard hereafter, because we’ve heard enough.

Yours too, buddy.

Wild persimmons — and persimmon pudding

Persimmon pudding and cognac. Click here for high-resolution version.

I had persimmon pudding today for the first time in at least 50 years. If you’ve ever once had persimmon pudding, you’ll never forget it, because there’s nothing else like it. I have my own persimmon trees now at last, so I have done my best to reproduce my mother’s and grandmother’s persimmon pudding, using an authentic old recipe from North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley.

Want to try making some persimmon pudding?

First of all, this post is about Diospyros virginiana. There are many varieties of persimmons in the world. This persimmon is native to the eastern United States. The persimmon tree is very common in the North Carolina Piedmont, where I grew up, and here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I live now. It is most likely to be found on the edges of a stand of woods, where it can get enough sunlight. You won’t find it in woodland interiors. When I lived in California, I often saw Asian persimmons, which are the size of apples, in grocery stores. They clearly are commercially cultivated like apples. However, Diospyros virginiana is a much smaller persimmon. It is a wild tree, but it will happily grow in your yard. One of the photos below includes a couple of coins to show the size of the persimmons.

How I got my persimmon trees: When I bought land here in Stokes County, all of it was wooded. I cleared an acre for a house, yard, garden, and orchard, leaving a few high-value trees standing. That was in 2009. Though I planted a good many trees, such as a bunch of arbor vitaes, many trees volunteered. I let the volunteer trees grow where they suited the landscape. Persimmon trees volunteered very quickly. The wildlife eat the fruit and poop the seeds. I have about ten persimmon trees in the yard now. I started getting the first persimmons in year five or so, but never enough for pudding. This year, for the first time, I had enough to make pudding. Ideally, you want your persimmon trees where you can mow under them, so that you don’t have to go into a thicket looking for persimmons. Maybe they can be transplanted. I don’t really know, since I didn’t have to transplant.

How to harvest persimmons: My recollection from my childhood is that my grandmother just went out and gathered persimmons off the ground from under the tree. Her trees were older and bigger, though, and I think her best persimmon trees grew in the yard. That, however, won’t work for me here. If I waited for the persimmons to fall, they’d vanish overnight, because the wildlife love them — deer, opossums, and raccoons. For today’s pudding, I had no choice but to pick persimmons off the tree as they were starting to ripen. Then I finished ripening them indoors.

How to tell when persimmons are ripe: There is a myth that persimmons don’t ripen until the frost bites them. That is not the case (though frost won’t hurt them, if they last that long). If I waited for frost, I wouldn’t get any persimmons, because the fruit would fall before frost arrives (mid to late October), and the wildlife would get them all. People who aren’t from around here sometimes think that persimmons are poison. That’s probably because they tasted a green one and learned how awful it tasted. There is nothing more astrigent than a green persimmon. It’s not possible to emphasize this too much: Your persimmons must be ripe. When they ripen, they get soft, so soft that they fall off the tree. You can’t possibly cook with persimmons that are not ripe. Not only would unripe persimmons not be soft enough to pulp, they’d also taste terrible. Can they be too ripe? Probably not, as long as they’re not starting to rot. Actually, they’d probably ferment before they rot. You want them right before the point at which they start to ferment.

How to ripen them if you picked them off the tree: If you pick your persimmons off the tree, don’t pick them until they are starting to ripen and are starting to brown. (See the photos below for typical colors.) If you pick a green persimmon, it would never ripen. Bring your persimmons indoors and spread them out on a baking sheet. Cover them with a dish towel or some muslin to keep the fruit flies off. They won’t ripen all at once. Each day, pick out the ones that are ripened and soft and move them to the refrigerator to wait for the others to ripen. It took a week for all mine to ripen. By this time, they also had started drying out some, which I was afraid might be a problem. It was hard work, but they pulped just fine. One of the photos below shows what the ripe persimmons should look like. Notice that all the ripe persimmons are pretty much the same golden brown color.

How to pulp your persimmons: You must use a food mill. You can find them on Amazon. The food mill will mash the persimmons and press out the pulp. If your food mill comes with different size strainers, use the fine one. You don’t want any bits of seeds or skin to get into your pulp. One of the photos below shows what the finished pulp should look like.

How to make pudding: No doubt there are other things that can be done with persimmons. In the rural culture in which I grew up, though, pudding was what persimmons were always used for. If you’ve never had persimmon pudding, that’s a bit of a handicap in trying to make it, because you don’t know what the goal is. But there are several things to keep in mind. First, it’s pudding, not cake. After it has finished baking, it will be dense and heavy and a bit squishy. After it starts to cool, the pudding will weep a dark syrup. That’s exactly what you want. In the recipe below, 2 cups of sugar sounds like a lot. Yet I think it’s necessary for a proper pudding. The crust of the pudding should caramelize, and the caramelization is an important part of the taste of the pudding. Some people may bake the pudding in a single, fairly deep vessel. However, in my opinion the only proper way to do it (that’s how my mother and grandmother did it) is to bake the pudding in three iron skillets of different sizes. (See the photo below.) This increases the amount of crusting and caramelization. And the cast iron, as long as it’s well seasoned, will give the pudding the kind of crust you want. Don’t be misled by the word “crust,” though. The crust is soft and is part of the pudding.

About this recipe: As far as I could determine through family sources, my mother and grandmother did not use a recipe. They “just stirred it up.” However, with the help of my sister, a cousin provided a traditional recipe from the Yadkin Valley that is just like my grandmother’s pudding. The recipe came from the 1988-1989 cookbook of Society Baptist Church in Harmony, North Carolina. I believe the church lady who provided the recipe was Nancy C. Koontz, who I hope won’t mind, if she is still living, if I reproduce the recipe here.

Yadkin Valley persimmon pudding

2 cups persimmon pulp
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour 
1 teaspoon baking powder 
2 eggs
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla 
1 teaspoon cinnamon 
3 tablespoons melted butter

Bake at 350 degrees.

How to mix the batter: The recipe assumes that the cook has the experience to know how to mix a batter, and no instructions are provided. I’d suggest mixing the egg, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and melted butter in bowl 1. In bowl 2, mix together the milk and the persimmon pulp. Add the contents of bowl 1 to bowl 2. Then add the flour, a cup at a time (plus the baking powder) to the mixture. I used a mixer for the final mixing to avoid lumps in the flour.

How to tell when the pudding is done: This is important and requires some skill and experience. Your pudding won’t be edible if it’s underdone. If it’s overdone, it will dry out and the crust will get too dark or blacken. How long you bake it will depend on the kind of pan or pans you use. Use the toothpick test! Even though the finished pudding is soft, the toothpick test will work and the toothpick will come out clean when the pudding is done. With the batter in three iron skillets, my pudding took about 30 minutes. My cousin bakes the pudding in a single a single 9 x 13 baking dish and gives it an hour. But watch the pudding, not the clock!

This was a lot of work, wasn’t it? But you only get persimmons once a year.

Click here for high-resolution version.

Notice the range of colors. These persimmons are not yet ripe!