The lowly persimmon: underestimated, slandered, mysterious. The platypus of fruits, persimmons walk a fine line between delicious and caustic. Chuck Shuford reveals that the berry's secret ingredient is timing.
October brings so many wonderful things. My woodshed is filled with a winter’s full of warmth. The hillsides, aflame with vivid colors, are as pretty as a mortgage paid in full. Post-season baseball reminds me each October that no matter how many games I see, I still haven’t seen it all. And October is Eat Country Ham Month – honestly, it is.
But one of October’s greatest pleasures is the wild persimmon that I grew up with and that we have in abundance here in southwestern Virginia. Unlike the larger Asian varieties, our native persimmons are about the size of a quarter with up to eight seeds about half an inch long, are more nutritious and possess a more intense taste.
Persimmons are not popularly considered to be berries, but in terms of botanical morphology that is exactly what they are, as is the tomato. Some variety of the native or common persimmon is found from southern Connecticut to southern Florida; westward through central Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, and central Illinois to southeast Iowa; and south through eastern Kansas and Oklahoma to the valley of the Colorado River in Texas.
When ready to eat, the wild persimmon is very soft — too ripe to be mass marketed but excellent to carry from field to kitchen. Perhaps the fact that you don’t find these delicacies in super markets is the reason that they are often misunderstood. I have received comments such as “I have always considered persimmons as ornamental– and that not very much”. Most recently a friend wrote to me: “Persimmons are lovely. I just never knew what to do to make them edible!”
The first thing to do to make them edible is to wait until they are fully ripened. By that I mean, have fallen to the ground and are soft — squishy even. By then they have sweetened to a point that possums, raccoons, deer, wild turkey and some humans will stand under the tree and enjoy them raw. I relish eating them raw as I gather them. There is a widespread belief that the first frost is required to sweeten the persimmon, but frost has nothing to do with it. Nor can you always judge ripeness by the color. To be safe, don’t pick them from the tree. Wait until they fall on their own or can be released with a gentle shaking of the limb. If you find them on the ground and they are soft, they should be sweet.
Admittedly, there is problem with eating a wild persimmon before its time, and this may also contribute to questions about its gastronomic worth. An unripe persimmon is severely astringent, and this has been documented for at least 400 years. Writing in his Generall Historie of Virginia in 1624, Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony wrote of the persimmon “If it be not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awrie, with much torment”.
And I must add that the unpleasant experience doesn’t subside with the rapid removal of the persimmon from the mouth. It takes a few minutes for the astringent reaction to subside. I liken eating an unripe persimmon to spreading alum powder over the inside of my mouth. If you aren’t familiar with alum powder, it is used in the pickling process to remove water from the cucumber. Feeding an unripe persimmon to an unsuspecting cousin from the city has been a tradition in rural areas, providing as much fun as snipe hunts. Perhaps a friendly Native American played the same trick on Captain Smith.
In fairness to the persimmon, Smith finished his sentence with “but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot.” I struggle with how to describe the taste to those who have never tasted one. Like the apricot, there is a faint tartness and maybe a slight musky flavor, but it is richly sweet as well. I guess they just taste like persimmons.
If you prefer not to eat them raw, there are many culinary options for persimmons. Native Americans and colonists used the persimmon to make breads, soups, beer, sweet puddings, cakes and candy. Dried persimmon seeds were ground to use as a coffee extender. The anglicized word “persimmon” comes from Algonquin dialects and means “dried fruit,” since the nutritious dried persimmon was a valuable winter food source. Its biological name is Diospyros virginiana. In Greek, Diospyros means more or less, divine fruit or fruit of the gods. The gods knew a good meal when they saw it.
In our house when I was growing up, persimmon pudding was the exclusive use of the divine fruit. It can be a lot of work separating pulp from seed, but I find a food mill makes the process go pretty smoothly. Besides, the final creation of persimmon pulp, eggs, sugar, flour, milk, butter and spices cooked to a dark, creamy pudding is well worth the effort.
I recently talked with a cousin from my father’s side of the family for the first time in many years, and she said “When I think of your mother, I always remember her persimmon pudding.” My mother would be pleased with that legacy.
Mom’s Persimmon Pudding
Add sugar to persimmon pulp –stir until dissolved. In a separate bowl lightly beat two eggs and add milk and vanilla. Pour the liquid into pulp and stir. Stir in flour gradually until well mixed. Pour in melted butter and stir in.
Bake for 1 hr at 300 degrees
*This is more art than science. I add a little more than 2 cups of persimmons because, well why not?
** To use all purpose flour, add 1 1⁄2 tsp of baking powder and 1⁄2 tsp of salt for each cup of flour