Ep 2: Homegrown Thanksgiving '23
This is the third entry documenting our 14-month challenge to ourselves to prepare a Thanksgiving meal made entirely of food and ingredients grown, harvested, hunted and produced right here on Fain-XX Farm. Regardless of the outcome, subsequent entries, photos, recipes and social media posts will be arranged into a book format for publication.
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Friday, September 30, 2022
We call it Plenty’s Gate. The moniker is an appropriate name for the dark hole in the wooded south slope of Fain-XX Farm. Out of this lazy draw pours a cornucopia of great things like a giant horn of plenty.
Deer, turkey and other wild critters follow the eroded path down to the pond for water. As the summer heat yields to fall, it’s important to be mindful of falling objects when entering the gate because in the center a prolific column stands guard; it’s the mother of all mockernut hickories dropping large, heavy, husked nuts to the ground with a thud. Under the mockernut’s shade, a redbud spreads her branches into an archway that welcomes every spring with a burst of violet.
Just to the right of Plenty’s Gate, two more columns terminate the opening, male persimmon trees watching over their harem. Stretching up the hill beyond the male persimmons, a living fence of wild rose and blackberry brambles, black locust saplings and low branches from massive hardwoods make entering the canopy from the right of the gate an unpleasant experience. To the left, of the gate, four female persimmons stand at the edge of the wood positioned to bathe their fruit in the full, late-day, end-of-summer sun. Behind and to the left of the lady persimmons, tall shortleaf pines prop up a thicket of blackberry, mimosa, sumac and papaw rapidly descending to a stream and flat, grassy marsh at the base of a near vertical slope.
I’ve kept a path mowed from the pond up to this gate into the south wood, but lately I haven’t had to venture far past the opening. Persimmons and hickory nuts have been the objective of my recent foraging forays. Though there are other persimmons on the property, some I have yet to find, and hickories are quite possibly the most abundant tree on our farm, the bounty of persimmons from the trees at Plenty’s Gate and the one mocker nut tree there has made me lazy about searching for more.
Beyond that one mocker nut hickory, the bare ground under the thick canopy is littered with an abundance of shagbark hickory nuts. Though both nuts are well flavored, it has been my recent experience that the mocker nut, although harder to crack than the shagbark nut, are not as likely to be invaded by the nut weevil. It is decidedly unappetizing to crack open a nut expecting to find a nice meaty center and see a small, white, grub-like worm tooling around inside the shell. In my efforts so far, I don’t recall a nut weevil in any of the mocker nuts, but the shagbark tends to be infested more often than not. It is possible it’s a seasonal thing too; perhaps the shagbark nuts fall to the ground sooner and need to be harvested earlier, or maybe the opposite is true and the lion’s share of the shagbark fall later after the weevils have run their course. Regardless, thus far I’m focusing on the mocker nut, and I need not go past Plenty’s Gate to harvest a fair share.
Pucker for Persimmons
I took a ladder up to Plenty’s Gate so I could pick persimmons from the lower branches of the tall lady simmons there, but I’ve decided it is better picking them directly off the ground; that way I know they’re ripe. That of course means harvesting on a daily basis so as to get to the fruit before bugs and wild animals do, but I’m okay with that as the evenings are turning far more pleasant now. Of course, I go out with our dogs, which means I have to work fast to beat the domestic animals to the fruit as well. Freyja, our malamute hybrid doesn’t care for them. Fain, a mountain cure or plot hound best we can figure, will eat them, but he’s indifferent; he prefers blackberries. Olivier (Oli for short), our boxer, and Sweeney, a bigger than average chihuahua will scour the ground for them. Sweeney, in particular, is a very efficient persimmon hunter. He’s like a truffle pig burrowing through the tall grass under those trees, only he doesn’t give up his find.
I should note here that although persimmons are not toxic to dogs, most veterinarians would recommend against dogs consuming very many persimmons. The persimmon is very high in sugar and too much sugary snacks are not good for our canine family. It’s also possible that the seeds of the persimmon might cause intestinal inflammation or blockage due to the high quantity of indigestible fiber. Personally, I believe the latter is a very rare possibility and much more likely to happen as a result of the nylon rope they chewed up and swallowed. Regardless, I am not putting persimmons in our dogs bowl for supper every night, but I see no harm in letting them forage the ground with me and snack on a few persimmons for themselves. Just keep in mind if your dogs are eating your persimmons you might want to limit or control their consumption of the fruit as indicated by the American Canine Sports Medicine Association.
Ripe persimmons are dark orange and very soft. The fruit will likely have dark blue, almost black areas that make it look bruised or rotten; that is just a good and ripe persimmon. Of course, I realize persimmons and hickory nuts are not traditional Thanksgiving fare, but they are a fall harvest available and plentiful on Fain-XX Farm. Homegrown Thanksgiving ’23 is about using what is available and plentiful, which means we might have to shake up the menu a little to take advantage of what the farm naturally has to offer.
It may be that Homegrown Thanksgiving ’23 will look a little wild and unusual, but it will be bountiful, flavorful, joyful and full of thanksgiving for all our home and hard work can offer.
Bringing Persimmons and Hickory to the Thanksgiving Table
I’m sure there will be more recipes for persimmons and hickory nuts in later editions — like persimmon brandy, you will want to stay tuned for that, but in this episode, we are sharing recipes for a coffee substitute, persimmon butter, persimmon nut bread, and a hickory pie.
We are still early in the planning phase, so there are substitutions that still need to be found or new exceptions made. For example, cinnamon and nutmeg are both spices from the far east and baking soda and baking powder are modern inventions of chemists to aide in the making of many baked goods, cutting the process down from days to minutes. We aren’t going to be harvesting cinnamon or nutmeg on the farm, but there are alternatives that we can cultivate like, ginger, anis, and saffron, and there are naturally occurring options like sarsaparilla, sassafras, rose hips and others I may have yet to discover.
Cream of Tartar, a key ingredient in baking powder, is the byproduct of winemaking, and though we plan on making wine, and even brandy, we don’t yet have fruiting grape vines. It may be that muscadine doesn’t even have enough tartaric acid to collect cream of tartar anyway and no idea on the persimmons, but cream of tartar can be substituted a number of ways, most easily by just using vinegar. The baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), on the other hand, that will be a much bigger challenge without making it an exception. We still have more than a year to figure it out, but in the meantime, these recipes are documented as Jessica would do them today.
First, it is necessary to prepare the persimmons and nuts. We aren’t going to the store and buying food fully processed and ready to use. These are ingredients harvested directly from wild earth in their most natural state.
There are hybridized seedless persimmon cultivars, but that is not what we are growing. Ours definitely have seeds, and fortunately, we’ve found a good use for them too. Each persimmon contains about a half-dozen seed, slightly larger than a watermelon seed. One method to removing the seed is to just squeeze them out, but honestly, it’s messy, and not very effective. It seems there is far less persimmon once all the seeds are out. Through trial and error, I discovered the most effective method to separate the fruit from the seed is to squeeze it through a coarse wire sieve or colander. With a broad spoon, I press and scraped each fruit through the sieve leaving the pulp in the pot and clean seeds in the sieve. I set the seeds aside for later.
Note: after successfully completing the above, I decided to ask a friend who has a farm in a neighboring county and runs a farmers market how she gets the seeds out of her persimmons. “A food mill,” she said and sent me a picture of her;’s. I think her method is probably easier.
Fresh off the tree, persimmons look like they are wearing a four-billed cap. Often it pops off when the fruit hits the ground but if it hasn’t already separated from the fruit, it needs to be removed too. We don’t have any use for the four-billed cap but being as they look a little like a dried flower blossom, I’m sure we can make a decoration out of them.
For most applications, the fruit needs to be rendered to a puree with a food processor or good old-fashioned potato masher, skin and all. Persimmon butter is a perfect substitute for the puree, and it allows for the persimmons to be canned for later use rather than take a chance that the fruit turns bad, or freezer burned before use. Jessica’s simmon butter recipe already includes the sugar and spices for her bread as well.
Jessica usually uses raisins, dried cranberries, or dried dates in her bread recipes, but as those are not available, the easiest solution is dried persimmons. They can of course be dried naturally in a long imperfect process, but it’s much easier to put them on baking trays in a conventional oven on warm for several hours. We actually have a food dehydrator, an inexpensive option found at just about any box store, that I prefer to use.
Because our persimmons are loaded with seeds, I choose not to de-pit the fruit before drying. Instead, I quarter the simmon, seeds and all, without cutting all the way through, fan out the quarters like the pedals of a flower and lay flat in the dehydrator. Once the fruit is satisfactorily dried, I can pop the seeds right out and use them separately as necessary.
Jessica’s persimmon nut bread calls for 2/3 cup of whiskey, but in the future, we will substitute homemade persimmon brandy. I can’t wait to try making the brandy. That will be an episode dedicated to just the process of making the spirit.
Hickory nuts come with their own challenges. When I first started harvesting hickory nuts, I just smashed them with a hammer and meticulously scooped the meat out of the pieces. It was a tedious process with very little success. I expected there had to be an easier way, but everything I read or watched online indicated that I just had to have more patience than I was born with.
I was first introduced to hickory pie several years ago while visiting the parents of one of Jessica’s childhood friends in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. It was fabulous and so much better than pecan pie. Every time I smashed a hickory nut and picked and dug out a few tiny pieces of the edible center, I would think of that hickory pie and wonder how they did it. Finally, I decided to see how pecans are processed, considering the pecan is related to the hickory. I learned that commercially available pecans are first dried in the shell. I previously considered I might have to dry the meaty center after I got it out of the nut, but I hadn’t considered that I might dry it in the shell first. Just to see if it made a difference, I put a little more than a handful of mocker nuts in the food dehydrator and turned it on expecting it would take several hours. In fact, after two hours, fissures stared to develop in the exceptionally hard shells and I could even crack the nut with a standard nutcracker, though I still prefer a hammer. The meat doesn’t easily come out whole like a store-bought pecan, but it is certainly easier than I was doing. I expect the dehydrator probably dried the nuts too fast and that if I build ventilated drying racks for the nuts and let them dry more naturally in the sun, it will improve the harvest in the future, but for now, I’ve sped up the process to get to the end results.
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Recipes from Plenty’s Gate
Rebel Rick’s Got-No Coffee
We call our little piece of paradise Fain-XX Farm, named after the original owners, Richard and Eliza Fain, and the roman numeral XX for the year we purchased the property, 2020. Richard Gammon Fain and his wife Eliza Rea Anderson Fain were plantation owners in union sympathetic East Tennessee. During the Civil War, Richard, and his sons all served the Confederacy. Richard was a colonel in the Tennessee Infantry and commanded the Tennessee Commissary in Nashville.
Even during the Civil War, coffee was a hot commodity for soldiers in combat, but the union controlled the coffee supply. Without coffee, Confederate soldiers had to find a new morning brew to warm their bellies. Not sure which Johnny Reb, Jonesin’ for java, first decided to roast persimmon beans and give them a whirl — probably has American Indian origins — but the flat, oval-shaped seeds of the persimmon fruit became the new steeping grounds for Johnny’s cup-o-Joe.
We don’t know if Richard Fain ever drank roasted persimmon seed tea, but as our own late resident Rebel Colonel, we’ve named our recipe after him.
Got-No Coffee for two requires about two dozen persimmon seeds, a skillet or flat roasting pan, a mortar and pestle (a hammer and flat rock work too), a pot for boiling water, a heat source and two cups. I used a stainless-steel French press-coffee cup combo to steep the grounds, but any matter of coffee maker works too, including just drinking dreggy tea.
Dry and roast the seeds until brittle and brown. I used a cast-iron skillet on med heat, turning the seeds frequently for about 10 minutes. Baking them on a flat roasting pan at 350 for the same time works too, but you don’t want the seeds to burn, so they should be flipped and stirred frequently, that’s why I prefer the skillet.
I put the hot roasted seeds into the mortar and pestle and milled them down to a coarse grind. Finer grounds will make for a more robust flavor, but I was in a hurry to try it. I poured the ground seeds into my French press, followed by near boiling water and let steep for two minutes before enjoying. I drank mine black, or more dark-brown as it was. Jessica added a little cream and honey to hers, which I have to admit, tasted pretty good.
Sadly, for me, maybe not for others, persimmon seeds do not contain caffein, but it is rich in vitamins and antioxidants. There is no go-juice in simmon-seed coffee, but it does offer a pleasant, almost refreshing flavor that feels good going down.
I expect that we will have some of Rebel Rick’s Got-No Coffee in the pot for Homegrown Thanksgiving ’23, and depending on the preference of our guests, it might go as a starter with some persimmon hickory nut bread or maybe with their dessert of a piece of hickory pie.
A Forager’s Treat, Persimmon Hickory Nut Bread
Jessica loves making bread and jam, especially in late summer through fall, so with a bumper crop of persimmons and sweet hickory nuts, a new bread recipe is the first thing to combine the two underappreciated tree fruits in our food stores. Considering that persimmons and hickory nuts go well with autumn fare, it is likely a couple hot loaves of persimmon hickory nut bread will grace the feast table this November as well as Homegrown Thanksgiving ‘23.
Makes two loaves
2 cups of ripe persimmons (seeds removed)
3 ½ cups of flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
tsp nutmeg, cinnamon, or allspice
2 ½ cups of sugar
1 cup butter
2/3 cup of whiskey or brandy
2 cups hickory nuts
2 cups dried fruit bits (we used persimmons)
After the persimmons have been necessarily prepared, it’s time to mix the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
In a separate container, whisk sugar with softened butter and eggs; mix in the dry ingredients; add whiskey and persimmon puree (persimmon butter already has necessary sugar and spices); mix in a food processor or stir vigorously while folding in the nuts and dried fruit.
Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
Enjoy with a pad of butter
The hardest part of making persimmon butter was extracting the seeds. I should have asked my friend and found out about the food mill before I made a mess with the colanders, which did work, just a little more involved. Jessica filled me in after the fact that we actually already have a food mill. Why she couldn’t have shared that information with me sooner I don’t know.
Makes approximately two pints.
3 cups of simmons (I started with about 6 cups of whole fruit)
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar (we used maple syrup)
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
Mix in all ingredients into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil before turning down the heat. Stir almost continuously for about five minutes or until it reaches the desired consistency.
There really is no difference between a hickory pie and a pecan pie except the type of nut used. Pecans do grow well here, but there are none on the property for now and it will take years before a tree could produce if I planted one today.
Any pecan pie recipe will do, just use hickory nuts instead, but to keep everything in one place, here is a recipe we use.
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tbsp of sugar
dash of salt
1 cup cold butter chopped
1 cup cold water
Mix butter into dry mix until it forms into pea sized beads. Slowly pour in cold water while stirring to form a large doughball. Turn out dough onto floured surface. Sprinkle flour on dough as needed while rolling into approximately 10-inch round sheet. Place into 9-inch pie pan and pinch around the circumference of the pan to form a fluted edge.
2 cups hickory nuts
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup browned butter (melt in cast iron skillet until slightly brown)
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl beat eggs until foamy. Stir in browned butter, white and brown sugar. Whisk together until combined. Stir in flour, milk and vanilla. Add hickory nuts and stir in until fully coated. Pour into prepared pie shell. Bake at 400 for 10 minutes then lower to 325 and bake for another 40 to 50 minutes or until top no longer giggles in the center.
About the Creator
The Bantering Welshman
M.S. Humphreys is The Bantering Welshman, an East Tennessee native, author, journalist, storyteller, marketing specialist, husband and step father. https://www.instagram.com/thebanteringwelshman/ and http://www.banteringwelshman.com
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