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Monday, November 22, 2010

Lotophagi and Persimmons?

In the ninth book of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew encounter the Lotophagi, or Lotus Eaters, on an island off the coast of North Africa.  The Lotophagi feed on a plant that causes them to forget their homes, and makes them sleepy and dopey.  They have no interest in the world around them, they just lay about and feast on this plant. 

Odysseus taking his men away
18th Century French engraving, artist unknown

When some of the crew of Odysseus consume this plant, they don’t want to leave the island, and Odysseus is forced to lug them back to the ship and chain them until the ship sails away.  They are weeping bitterly at having to leave.

Japanese Hachiya persimmon
Watercolor by Amanda A Neton
1887, USDA
As to what plant Homer may be referring to, we just don’t know.  The Greek term lotos can refer to several edible plants, one of them persimmons, but none of them narcotic.  

Historians have been trying ever since to figure out what the plant was, and where the island is/was.  Some translators say Lotus Eaters, and certainly the roots and flowers of lotuses are edible.  But that is not perhaps the best translation.  There could be a plant that has become extinct, or which we are not familiar with as an edible.  But it would help if we knew where this island was.

One conjecture is that if this was based on fact, then perhaps Homer was purposefully obscure so others wouldn’t go to this island and become enticed to stay.  Herodotus claimed that the Lotophagi existed in his day in coastal Libya, but it was a peninsula, not an island.  This causes modern scholars to think it may be modern-day Djerba.  However, according to the Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax, the Lotophagi lived in a peninsula in Illyria.  If this is true, then it puts a whole new twist on the Odyssey, as Odysseus wasn’t lost in the Mediterranean Sea, but the Adriatic.

“Plum” seems to be a fruit that pops up in a lot of conjectures.  Interestingly enough, many food historians think that this mystery fruit is a date-plum, a type of persimmon native to southeastern Europe and southwest Asia.  The Persian name is khormaloo, literally “date-plum”, and it is said to taste like both.

Persimmons have long been considered highly desirable fruits.  They are of the genus Diospyros, which in ancient Greek means “fruit of the Gods”.  They are the fruits of a perennial tree, and the word persimmon derives from Powhatan, an Algonquian language, meaning a “dry fruit”.

They are generally light yellow-orange to dark red-orange.  They can be round, or shaped like an acorn or a pumpkin.  There are anomalies to this, however.  A native of Mexico, the black persimmon has green skin and white flesh, and it turns black when ripe.  The Velvet-apple is Philippino and bright red when ripe.  It is found in China (called shizi), too, and is also known as the Korean mango.

The Japanese Persimmon is the most widely cultivated.  Although native to China, its cultivation was known in other parts of Asia before being introduced to southern Europe, and California.  We know this persimmon as fuyu, and it can be eaten crisp, but is more flavorful when slightly softened.

The Japanese hachiya is another commonly available type.  This is in the shape of a tear drop with a longer body.  These are used for cooking as they will make your mouth pucker (and not in a good way!)

Persimmons can be eaten fresh, dried, raw, or cooked.  To eat it fresh, you can peel it and quarter it like an apple, although I usually eat the peel as well.  If it is very ripe, you just cut off the top and eat like pudding.  The bitter hachiya pesimmons are often dried, then eaten.  The Koreans use these dried fruits to make a punch called sujeonggwa, and the ripe, fermented fruit to make a vinegar called gamsikcho.  Koreans also use the dried leaves from the fruit to make ghamnip cha, which is a tea.  These become more interesting facts when you consider that Herodotus claimed that the Lotophagi made wine from the fruit.

Whatever the mystery fruit may be, among the many authors intrigued by the Lotophagi, is Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), who wrote the poem The Lotus-Eaters, a stanza of which follows:


How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream!
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
To hear each other’s whisper’d speech;
Eating the Lotos day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heap’d over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!


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