This is the story of why my family has Persimmon Pudding and never Pumpkin Pie on Thanksgiving. It's more than that, of course, because all good stories are more than a just one thing.
This story encompasses elephant jokes told in Chinese and cats who walk on tables. It is a meditation on what is funny and what other cultures think is funny.
And it's a little snap shot of the life of my family some 30-plus years ago.
First, let it be known that I am not Chinese. My family has German ancestors -- some of them Jewish. My father's grandfather emigrated to the United States in the late 19th Century and ended up in southern Indiana, in the town of Columbus. This is significant mostly because it explains why there are persimmons in this story.
Persimmon pudding is a Hoosier thing. I experienced it first as a child while visiting my paternal grandparents. The persimmons that grow in southern Indiana come ripe after the first frost, when they fall off the trees and lie squishy on the ground. Before that, they are so astringent as to be inedible. That's why they're available around Thanksgiving and Persimmon Pudding is Hoosier Thanksgiving fare.
But just hold that thought. The persimmons won't be back in this story for a while.
The year is 1978. I was living at home with my parents in the Detroit suburbs, getting back on my feet and finishing my degree in communications at Wayne State University after a divorce.
For little other reason than I'm an ornery sort of person, I decided to take Mandarin Chinese to fulfill my foreign language requirement. I had a lot of fun with it.
While I was taking first-year Mandarin Chinese, the university made a deal to welcome the first ever exchange students from the People's Republic of China. These students all spoke some English, but they had learned it with almost no exposure to native speakers, so their accents were impenetrable and they had trouble understanding the spoken word. To help them adjust, our instructor arranged for American students studying Chinese to meet with the Chinese exchange students for practice.
The exchange students outnumbered us, so the groups tended to be three or four Chinese paired with one American. In pretty short order, most of the American students got bored with the arrangement, and most of the groups dissolved.
Except my group, that is. A good number of the students from the other groups ended up coming to my group and before long, I was leading a fairly large study group.
I was determined to make this as valuable as possible, so I was continually wracking my brain for discussion topics for the group that were simple enough that I could follow with my first-year Chinese, but interesting enough to hold people's attention.
One exercise I thought up was to have everyone tell a joke in their non-native language.
I worked hard on coming up with a joke that would still be funny when I told it in Chinese. I couldn't do anything that relied on a pun, so that ruled out any of the shaggy dog stories I was fond of telling. It also had to avoid cultural humor, because my Chinese friends would probably not understand.
After much deliberation I came up with "elephant jokes." Elephant jokes have pretty much faded off the scene, but when I was in high school, they were the big thing. Elephant jokes relied on whimsy for their humor, so I figured they would be translatable. In case you've never heard an elephant joke, here's an example:
Why don't elephants ride tricycles?
They don't have a thumb to ring the bell.
Yeah, when I was in high school, we thought that was a real knee slapper. I only barely remember why.
The joke I picked out to tell my group was selected because it fit within the grammatical structure I could handle during my first semester of Chinese. The joke was:
What do elephants like to do between 3 and 5 o'clock in the afternoon?I worked hard on the translation and practiced it in front of an imaginary class several times before the session where I got up and told it.
They like to jump out of trees in the forest.
Why are crocodiles built so low to the ground?
They like to stroll through the forest between 3 and 5 o'clock in the afternoon.
I finished the second couplet and there was dead silence in the room. The exchange students just looked flummoxed. Had I mispronounced a word? Did I get an intonation wrong (which would change the meaning in Chinese)?
Finally, one of the students got up his courage to ask, "Can elephants climb trees?"
To be completely fair, I didn't understand their jokes either.
After some experimentation on my part in coming weeks, I did find a genre of joke that the Chinese students thought was hilarious. Or maybe they just laughed to put an end to my desperate search for international humor.
They were tickled by Polish jokes. Mind you, I didn't tell them as Polish jokes. I told them as "foolish person" jokes. It turns out that the Chinese have their own "Polish jokes," though they tell them as "The stupid farmer from [whatever province the teller is not from] jokes."
But back to Thanksgiving. It was coming and my parents asked me to invite however many of my Chinese student friends as would like to come to join us for the holiday. They were far from home in a foreign land, and my parents figured there could be nobody more appropriate to invite.
As it happened, only one accepted. Many of the others had other invitations. They were much in demand as Thanksgiving guests.
The student who accepted, we'll call him Jang, was a man in his 40s working to finish a PhD in physics. His university education in China had been interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. I described our very traditional menu to him and he was eager to try it all, except for the pumpkin pie. He was horrified at the idea of pumpkin pie and wanted no part of it.
Later, I found out that this was actually because of a minor mistranslation on his part. When he heard me say pumpkin, he thought I was talking about a kind of melon that is common in China. During the Cultural Revolution, Jang had been sent to the countryside and had nothing to eat but these melons for several years. They were a very bitter memory for him.
Back in my mother's kitchen, my parents were eager to accommodate our guest so our menu was adjusted to take Pumpkin Pie off and add Persimmon Pudding, about which Jang had no negative associations -- because he had no clue to what a persimmon was.
The dinner was a grand success. With the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, spiced peaches, noodles, peas with pearl onions and two types of cranberry sauce demolished, it was time to bring on the dessert.
I don't think I've mentioned, yet, that my mother had four cats. They, as cats will, considered all surfaces fair game for walking and sitting. Jang seemed a little put off by the high cat population in our house, but he was game and tolerated them rubbing his ankles.
When it was time for dessert, my mother told my younger brother (also an adult living at home at that time) to go get the pudding from the back porch, where it had been set to cool.
My brother returned a moment later with an odd look on his face and no pudding.
"How can you tell there's been an elephant in the refrigerator?" he asked, launching into a well-known (at the time) elephant joke.
My mother's eyes went wide. She understood the code.
For anyone who has never heard the joke, it goes:
How can you tell there's been an elephant in your refrigerator?Mom knew a cat had walked through the Persimmon Pudding.
Footprints in the Jell-O.
She went out and carefully cut squares of pudding between the footprints and brought them back to serve. The pudding was a success and Jang professed to love it.
And while this would not seem to mandate dumping Pumpkin Pie in favor of Persimmon Pudding, since that year, my family has always served the pudding on Thanksgiving.
In honor of the coming holiday, here's the recipe:
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups persimmon pulp
2 1/2 cups white sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
2 1/2 cups milk
4 tablespoons melted butter
Mix all of the above and pour into a well-buttered 9x13 baking pan. Bake at 325 degrees (F), for about 55 minutes. Pudding will rise, but will sink back down after you take it out of the oven.
It's served with Hard Sauce:
1 stick of butter at room temperature
2 cups of powdered sugar
2 tablespoons of rum or whiskey
Beat together until well blended and light. Spread on a plate and refrigerate for several hours or overnight until hard.
Edited to correct a couple of typos.