The Indiana Harvest Table

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!  Here’s a song in celebration of all the gelatin salads that have graced potluck tables and family gatherings since WWII.  Written by Professor William Bolcom from the University of Michigan in 1986 and performed by his mezzo-soprano wife Joan Morris.  You’re listening to: Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise (A song about everything this blog is NOT about).

 

As Americans prepare for Thanksgiving in the coming week, I thought I’d share the recipe that James Dean’s Aunt Ortense Winslow would have prepared at this time each year, an Indiana traditional favorite, Persimmon Pudding.

(There are several other dishes from the Recipes from Rebels cookbook that will definitely find their way onto MY harvest feast table this year and hopefully YOURS…see the list of suggestions at the end of this blog.)

 

1447406690903It was a pleasant sunny day in Indiana on Monday November 23, 1953.  There was a light breeze and the gauge mounted outside on the barn read 46 degrees, the day’s chores went quickly and there was a sense of purpose in the air.  The sun sets early these days, about half past five, and Ortense had prepared a nurturing supper.  Hastily she washed and stored the dishes away.  In her mind, she was organizing the family’s Thanksgiving menu, just 3 days away…but that could wait until later.  The Winslow family gathered around the new television set which Marcus tuned to channel 33…it was just after 9pm and Robert Montgomery Presents was about to air.  This episode, playing the week of Thanksgiving, was titled Harvest and starred their boy, Jimmy Dean.

(The show was broadcast live, but a Kinescope copy still exists.  Below is the full program for YOUR viewing pleasure.  Jim has some very good scenes and it’s a touching story to watch at this time of year.)  The drama explores the life of the Zalinka family, wheat farmers in Minnesota.  A hail storm destroys their crop just before harvest, and grandpa dies just before his 100th birthday.  Jim plays Paul, the youngest son, who has dreams of marrying and getting away from farm life, but whose brothers have left and the family now depends upon him to carry on the family farm.

As a mental refresher and a fun bit of trivia, here’s a short who’s who list of the principle players before you watch the teleplay:

1447406706662ROBERT MONTGOMERY as the host.  Robert was a classic leading man in Hollywood, who eventually found that he gained much more pleasure behind the camera that in front of it.  He starred in 64 films, but directed and produced1447406699882 9 more.  His TV series Robert Montgomery Presents ran from 1950-57 (321 episodes, winning an Emmy in 1953).  He was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1935-38 and 46-47.  Robert was father to Elizabeth Montgomery, the “witch with a twitch” from TV’s beloved Bewitched series (1964-72).  Coincidentally, Elizabeth was one of the top candidates for the role of Luz Benedict II in Giant with James Dean, but the role eventually went to Carroll Baker.

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1447406693715DOROTHY GISH as Ellen Zalinka, the mother.  Dorothy was the younger, to her more famous acting sister Lillian Gish.  (Dorothy’s the one on the right in this photo)  Mary Pickford got Dorothy and Lillian a contract with Biograph Pictures in 1912.  Dorothy made over 100 2-reel feature films and successfully transitioned from silent to talking pictures.  She was also featured in more than 40 TV dramas and 18 Broadway shows.  Gish was renowned for her comedic roles, but always desired to be a “tragidienne” (her word) playing the “sad” roles.

She was 55 when she appeared in Harvest with James Dean.  The two had a good connection and their scenes together far outshine the acting abilities of all the other cast members.

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1447406701348ED BEGLEY as Karl Zalinka, the father.  Ed was a charismatic character actor that starred in over 102 film and TV projects.  He is best known for his work in the original cast of The Guiding Light soap opera (1952), 12 Angry Men (1957), Sweet Bird of Youth (1962, Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Hang ‘Em High (1968), and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964).  Ed was father to current actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr..

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1447406704411VAUGHN TAYLOR as Gramps.  Vaughn was a prolific character actor, known for his pencil-thin mustache.  He appeared in over 180 TV shows and films, including Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Elizabeth Taylor (1958),  Psycho (1960), and In Cold Blood (1967).  Vaughn plays the 99 year-old Zalinka family patriarch (despite the fact the he was actually 11 years younger than Dorothy Gish).  Vaughn had previously co-starred with Dean in Ten Thousand Horses Singing (a 1952 episode of Studio One on CBS), and The Bells of Cockaigne (1953)

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1447406695521REBECCA WELLES (aka Reba Tassel, aka Rebecca Weis) as Arlene, the love interest of Paul.  Rebecca accumulated 58 acting credits throughout her career, mainly in television.  Her most remembered roles were in Desire Under the Elms (1958), Juvenile Jungle (1958), and on the Perry Mason TV series (1957-64).  (Not to be confused with the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth of the same name.)  She and James Dean got along very well during rehearsals and shooting of Harvest.

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1447420898970JAMES SHELDON, director.  Sheldon has over 110 credits to his directing career, including The Millionaire (1955-60), The Bing Crosby Show (1964-65), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers TV series ((1982-83).  Harvest was Sheldon’s directorial debut for Robert Montgomery Presents.  It was broadcast live from NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York.  He was responsible for casting Dean in the role of Paul Zalinka and had directed him just a week earlier in another TV drama, The Bells of Cockaigne.

Sheldon was one of the first people Dean called when he arrived in New York, “A director friend of mine Ralph (Levy), out (in Los Angeles), and asked me to see this boy that was a friend of a friend of his (Rogers Brackett)–and would I see him when he came to New York?  …I asked him to read a scene–just to see, you know, what he was like.  And he read very well.”

Sheldon introduced him to directors (he was not yet a director himself), sent him to auditions, and eventually connected him with agent Jane Deacy.  “We were friends.  We palled around together.”  On the set of Harvest, “…he was lovely.  He and Dorothy Gish got on very well.  And Begley was good with him.  And the girl, Reba Tassel, she and Jimmy got along very well.”

Sheldon last saw Dean on September 25th, 1955 at a party that Jane Deacy had thrown at the Chateau Marmont in LA, celebrating Jim’s new Warner Brothers contract.

AND NOW FOR OUR FEATURE PRESENTATION!

Ortense Winslow’s Persimmon Pudding (this recipe taken from her hand written recipe files) is a distant relative of the Persimmon sweet breads presented to the first American Colonists by the Cherokee Indians (and seems even more appropriate for the Thanksgiving holiday).  Persimmon Pudding and Sugar Cream Pie are traditional favorites in Indiana.  For those unfamiliar, the pudding is similar to a steamed English Christmas pudding, a toffee pudding, or baked bread pudding…rich, dark, dense, and full of spicy flavors, typically served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

“Wild persimmons start to blush along the country roads of Indiana in late September, stealing the colors of the sunset and weighing down their trees like Christmas balls,” (Lygaya Mishan, New York Times 2014).  The name persimmon comes from the Algonquin Indian words putchemon, parsiminan, and pessamin.  The wild variety growing in Indiana and the southern US is called Diospyros virginiane (Diospyros translating as “food of the gods” in Greek).  If you’re lucky enough to live in these areas, you can harvest the softest, mushy ripe fruits as they fall from the1447453531104 trees at first frost…if not, you can find them in farmers markets and grocery stores at this time of year (or buy the prepared pulp, frozen by mail-order).  California grows several Asian varieties, known as Hachiya or Fuyu (not as good, but they will work if that is all that is available).  Mitchell, Indiana (south of Indianapolis) has hosted a persimmon festival every September for the last 69 years.  There you’ll find a plethora of treats ranging from upside-down cake, jelly, brandy, and ‘simmon beer.  Persimmons are low fat, high in vitamin C, calcium, antioxidants, and a substance which inhibits tumor growth.

Persimmon pudding recipes vary by region.  Some recipes include whiskey or differing amounts of clove, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and vanilla.  In Indiana, the biggest debate seems to be to stir, or not to stir…stirring the pudding as it bakes produces a lighter, fluffier pudding, while not stirring results in a more flat, dense, bread-like pudding.  Ortense Winslow falls into the stir group.  She made it each year for Thanksgiving and for get-togethers throughout the Christmas season.

1447453528122Young James Dean was only 9 years-old when his mother passed and he went to live with his Uncle Marcus, Aunt Ortense, and his older cousin Joan (pronounced Jo-Ann) in Indiana.  His younger cousin Marcus Jr. would come a couple of years later.  There became a bit of sibling rivalry when the 2 “only-child” cousins, Jimmy and Joan started living under the same roof.  “He was a bit of a pain to me!  Like any little brother,” recalled Joan.  I could almost never put one over on him.  Jimmy was really a smart kid.  But there was one time–it must have been shortly after he came to live with us.  We had 2 persimmon trees in the back yard, and I was eating persimmons that had just been picked, right out of the bucket.  Jimmy asked, ‘What’s that?’  ‘They’re persimmons,’ I told him.  ‘Are they good?’  ‘Oh yes!’ I said.  ‘I believe I’ll have one,’ he said.  Well I handed him a green persimmon.  Now a green persimmon can turn your mouth inside out.  He took one bite of it, and being his typical actor self, he went through all sorts of actions and faces and gestures, on and on.  I never fooled Jimmy again, but I took comfort in remembering that episode for a long time.”

 

ORTENSE WINSLOW’S PERSIMMON PUDDING

INGREDIENTS AND DIRECTIONS:

1 quart persimmons (before running through the colander, should provide 1 pint of pulp)

(to this pulp add:)

1-3 eggs

1-1 1/2 cups flour

1 quart milk

butter or lard (the size of a walnut)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

-Bake 1 hour and stir (twice during the baking)

-Serve with whipped cream

14475182484841447518252468144751826064314475182631221447518266886144751827194514475218357331447520168432I was able to locate 2 different varieties growing here on the island.  Choose the softest, mushiest ones you can find.  It took me more than the stated quart of persimmons to produce the pint of pulp (probably depends upon what kind).  Any extra pulp can easily be frozen.

I recommend squishing by hand and pressing through the colander, one or two at a time.  If you’re using one of the Asian varieties, which are firmer, you may need to use a blender or food processor (after removing the seeds and skins).  One of those cone-shaped, food mills would have worked perfectly here…but I couldn’t find mine right off, and went with the colander.  This was the only labor intensive step in Ortense’s recipe.

Helpful Household Hint: From one of the many vintage, small town cookbooks I referenced while researching Recipes for Rebels, comes this hint…Wash the colander from the outside-in. This dislodges trapped food particles first, making clean-up faster and easier.

I went for the 3 eggs, because I like my pudding to be very custard-y.  Also I used the full cup and a half of flour.

I melted the “walnut sized” bit of butter, before stirring it into the batter.  The finished mixture will have the consistency of pancake batter.  I baked it in a moderate oven (about 300F).

At the first stirring, you may think something’s gone horribly wrong…at the second stirring, things are looking better…when finished baking, you’ll hardly be able to wait for it to cool!1447591064217

The pudding can be served warm or cold, accompanied with either sweetened, whipped cream (as Ortense suggests above) or with vanilla ice cream.  I flavored my cream with a bit of vanilla.  I like that the pudding depends only on the sweetness of the fruit and has no added sugars.   Ortense’s Persimmon pudding was outstanding!  Her spices are understated, letting you taste the true essence of the fruit.    The recipe is easily adapted to variations, but the simplicity and honesty of flavors tasted like the Fall colors of an Indiana day on the farm.

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There are several over wonderful dishes in the Recipes for Rebels cookbook that would make a great addition to any Thanksgiving spread. Here’s my top suggestions:

Jim’s mother, Mildred Dean often brought Heavenly Hash (p25) to the family gatherings.  This would be a truly authentic offering at your James Dean Thanksgiving;

Marilyn Monroe’s Turkey and Stuffing (p73).  The stuffing is flavorful and well balanced…a very nice recipe;

Dorothy Gish’s Corn and Cheese Souffle (p140).  Who could pass this one up.  Delicious!;

The Reverend James DeWeerd’s Honey Rolls (p143), prepared the night before and baked first thing in the morning (because the oven has to start out cold…you can reheat them just before serving);

Elvis Presley’s Baked Squash (p149), a Thanksgiving classic;

Rod Steiger’s Pumpkin Pie (p188), another classic;

And finish with Lemal Ayers’ Cafe Diable (p210), a fancy treat to finish a flawless meal with friends and family.

(Take pictures for me if you prepare anything from the book…I’d love to post them here!)

 

Recipes for Rebels wishes you a very happy Thanksgiving, and a happy, healthy holiday season!

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