There is an old adage from the days of blacksmithing that says, “Strike while the iron is hot!” Its meaning is that we must take action at the right moment before the opportunity is gone. In the case of a blacksmith or iron-worker, this meant striking the horseshoe to shape it when the iron was hot enough to be malleable. The internet tells me that this phrase was used in “The Excellent Comedie of Two the Moste Faithfullest Freendes, Damon and Pithias,” by Richard Edwards, around 1566. The line says, “I haue plied the Haruest, and stroke when the Yron was hotte.”

This theme arises repeatedly “In Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) advises Will Turner (played by Orlando Bloom) to “wait for the opportune moment.” When Will fails to express his love for Elizabeth, the heroine in the story (played by Keira Knightley), Captain Jack tells him, “If you were waiting for the opportune moment [Jack pauses meaningfully here], that was it.”

There have been so many times that I myself have missed the opportune moment! For example, this past winter and spring, after years of drought, we had substantial rain in California. And for the first time I can remember, the plum tree in my yard actually bore fruit!! The plums were so small that at first, I thought they were cherries. But when I tasted them it was clear that they were plums: tiny, but sweet, red plums.

So, what can you do with little plums? There is another saying – if life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. (I seem to be thinking of proverbs today!) Its meaning is that we should be optimistic and turn negatives into positives, to use whatever resources life affords us.

So, what can you do with an unexpected crop of little plums? Personally, I am not going to go to the trouble of producing homemade jam or jelly. But maybe I could make umeboshi – a salty, spicy Japanese dish that I love! How hard could it be?

Mind you: I don’t cook if I can help it, and I don’t usually cook any dish that calls for more than three ingredients. (“Salt and pepper,” being a collocation, counts as one ingredient.) But I also feel compelled to utilize the resources life offers me. (This attitude is undoubtedly the heritage of my Depression-era parents, who saved everything that might at some point be useful.) So I looked up the recipe for umeboshi and found that it only requires two ingredients: the ume (the little plums) and fine sea salt (the amount being 8% of the weight of the plums). OK, no problem. I can handle this two-item recipe.

Ah, but wait. There’s more to it. I found a clearly written recipe for umeboshi on the internet. It is from the book Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (©2016 Andrews McMeel Publishing).

The recipe involves a number of interesting steps and some specialized equipment. It seems I would need “a large wooden, ceramic, or food-grade plastic tub” and “a clean muslin (or food-grade plastic) sheet.” The recipe says to “lay a drop lid on top of the sheet and weight with rocks or similar heavy items equaling the weight of the ume.” It also says that I must “check after 2 or 3 days to make sure the brine has surfaced.” If it has not, I am told I “should massage any residual bottom salt up to the top fruit.”

What? Wait a minute! What does it mean to “massage any residual bottom salt”? Apparently, after letting the mixture sit for a few weeks, I must also periodically “make sure no mold is forming” – and if it is, I am to “pick the mold off carefully.” In the process, the recipe advises me, I must not scratch the ume with my fingernails.

Eventually, after the mixture has been sitting quietly for two or three weeks (other than when I am massaging the residual bottom salt and picking off the mold), I am supposed to “dry the ume for 3 days in the bright sunlight . . . on rattan mats (or the equivalent) stretched across a wooden frame for good air circulation.” Then, at night, I must “return the ume to the pickling pot.” (Am I supposed to tuck them in and read them a bed-time story?)

At this point, I decide to look for a simpler recipe. Yes, I can manage the two ingredients described above, but these steps are more than I had expected. So I found another umeboshi recipe, which calls for California wild plums. OK, now we are working in my neighborhood! But another complication arose when I read the second recipe:

  • 1 pound (metric example = 1 kilogram) small wild plums, about the size of cherries or slightly larger and still firm
  • 2 cups (metric example = 1/2 liter) vodka or other distilled alcohol (such as shochu), for rinsing plums
  • 1.6 ounces (metric example = 100 grams) red shiso leaves (about 10% by weight of plums)
  • 1.6 ounces (metric example = 100 grams) coarse sea salt or Kosher salt (10% salt solution)

Hmm. The vodka I can locate, but where am I going to get shiso leaves and shochu? This whole project has gotten more complicated than I thought it would be.

You can image what happened. I failed to seize the opportune moment. My work as our program chair and editing the next TIRF-Routledge book with Ryan Damerow and a hundred other tasks all took precedence over my umeboshi adventure. When I finally went out in the yard to harvest the plums, they were gone: They had all ripened and fallen. They had become food for the neighborhood birds, donating their seeds to the earth below the parent tree. I had failed to strike while the iron was hot.

What is the lesson to be learned here?

  1. When life gives you mini-plums, make umeboshi.
  2. Make umeboshi while the plum is ripe.
  3. Wait for the opportune moment—but don’t let it pass you by.

At this point I will ask the question I often pose in these Chair’s Reports: What does this story have to do with TIRF? I can think of several likely connections:

  1. If you read research on language learning and policy, the time is right for nominating an article or chapter for the Alatis Award.
    1. A prize of $500 will be awarded for an article or chapter published in English in 2018 or 2019, which deals with some aspect of language policy or planning in educational contexts.
    2. Nomination deadline: October 1, 2019
    3. Learn more:
  2. If you are a research advisor or doctoral student, now is an ideal time to learn about TIRF’s Doctoral Dissertation Grants (DDG) competition.
    1. DDGs are awards for doctoral-level research in the amount of up to US $5,000. There are no citizenship or membership requirements for these grants
    2. Application deadline: Around mid-April each year. The 2020 DDG competition will commence in December, 2019.
    3. Learn more:
  3. If you are a masters-level student in Chinese-speaking contexts – or if you know anyone who is – please consult TIRF’s website about next year’s Masters Research Grants (MRG) competition.
    1. MRGs are designed for students in the Chinese-speaking contexts of mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and provide important funding for students who are nearing completion of the MA degrees. Awards are made in the amount of up to RMB 10,000.
    2. Application deadline: Around mid-April each year. The 2020 MRG competition will commence in December this year.
    3. Learn more:
  4. If you are someone who cares about language education, and who hopes language education policies will be influenced by research funding, this is a great time to donate to TIRF. At our September Board of Trustees meeting, we will be considering the budget for 2020. What the Foundation can accomplish depends on the support of individuals who care enough to contribute their expertise, time, and financial resources. Click here to get involved today or write to [email protected].

I would like to personally encourage you to strike now while the iron is hot (and the plum is ripe)! This IS the opportune moment.

Best wishes,