Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

My parents were worried about our new neighborhood when we moved into this Howard Street house. Admittedly, our part of town was considered “transitional” in real estate agent parlance. Standing outside of our house the afternoon of their first visit, my mother looked in askance as some of our more. . .uh. . .colorful. . .neighbors passed by. My dad did not notice them. Instead, he was sizing up our next-door neighbor’s mature persimmon tree with covetous eyes.

Kaki – persimmons – took on mythic significance for my dad. He planted one kaki tree in Peralta Hills, and then another, and then another. At some point, he had such a large crop he decided to dry them to produce his own hoshigaki, considered an expensive delicacy in Japan.

They’re an expensive delicacy because to make them right is a non-commercial, very labor-intensive process. To start with, you have to pick them when they are orange but still firm; not too soon, not too late. And you can’t just pull them down with a fruit picker. Oh, no. You must cut the stem of each one so the cap remains attached, leaving a small “T” of stem on top. You just can’t drop them to the ground, as they might bruise or split, so my dad atop the ladder would drop them down to me. I would catch each one like pop flys in the infield, never missing.

After wiping them clean, then we’d peel them all and tie them by those “T’s” with little loop of string to laundry racks to dry in their screened-in patio. Then for several weeks, he would massage each one each day (yes, you heard me right) as they dried so they would stay soft and succulent. Bing irreverently said they looked like miniature pumpkins becoming shrunken heads. Great vigilance is required. If the weather is too hot and dry, they become tough and hard; if the weather is too cool and damp, they mold. Tricky business, this kaki drying stage.

But if the kaki gods were with us, they would “sugar up,” as my dad called it, developing a powdery-white coat, becoming as sweet as candy. After my dad flattened and straightened them up, he’d wrap them individually and package them. And then off they went, shipped as holiday presents to Japan, Australia, back east, and elsewhere, and given to whomever made the gift list cut.

As we got to know our neighbors that first year, my dad talked with Greg about how he could dry his persimmons; my dad would teach him. So the next October, me very pregnant with Akemi, we were all out in front, picking, peeling, and hanging Greg’s persimmons. Greg called my dad “kaki sensei” – persimmon master.

When Akemi was born, Greg and Antoinette gave us our own persimmon tree to plant. Along the way, they relandscaped their front yard, and their persimmon tree became history. Ours has flourished and grown for almost exactly 21 years. My landscape designer recommended taking our tree down, too, but I refused.

I’ve been monitoring the color of my kaki and decided that today most of them were the right shade of orange to pick. Standing in the tree, I really missed my dad. Our good friend Helen has taken over picking my dad’s trees and shepherding his fruit through the hoshigaki process. She has become a worthy disciple – her hoshigaki are beautiful, and she tells my mother that Hiroshi would be happy.

I know better than to try to dry them myself. In fact, one year when my parents left on a trip as the kaki were drying, Dad left Bing and me on kaki duty. Big mistake. An hour’s drive away, we didn’t get to Anaheim often enough to stay on top of our charges. We got fired from further kaki responsibility. We should have been ashamed, but we actually were relieved – we had pressure enough in life.

Instead I’ll eat this year’s crop as snacks, put them in salads, and make persimmon bread and cookies. Maybe I’ll try some chutney or jam this year. I’ll give many of them away to others who similarly have their favorite persimmon pudding and other recipes. Like our neighborhood, this kaki tree has mellowed and grown gracefully with character.

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