(A note to readers: the persimmons pictured in this story aren't native to North Carolina. Regretfully, we were unable to procure those for the story.)
“Hold on a minute, let me get the recipe. Can you hold a minute?”
I held a minute.
"Found it on the first look. Alright, you know you need really ripe persimmons, right?" I knew that. "First, run 'em through a colander..."
Nana kept her persimmon pudding recipe closely. I’d phoned her in the fall of 2012 for instructions on the pudding, prompted by a food writing class assignment to document a personally meaningful recipe. I had foraged really ripe persimmons from a Chapel Hill tree and run ‘em through a colander, and I kept one eye on the pulp oozing through my makeshift press -- sieve over mixing bowl with stone mortar and pestle for weight, all precariously balanced -- while Nana recounted her directions and I documented.
Nana lived next door to my childhood home and I was circling back to her classic recipe after several years of experimenting with persimmon oatmeal cookies and persimmon and pork crockpot concoctions. I wanted the pudding that we’d baked with fruit from her Uncle Emmel’s tree, the one that we’d devoured from Nana’s avocado green dessert plates during after-school games of gin rummy.
This is this my first persimmon season without my Nana to call as I bake, but I hear her never-lived-more-than-sixteen-miles-from-Salisbury-North-Carolina accent in my notes as I re-read them and it’s her pudding that will be on my holiday table this year.
Persimmons are delightful not only because they remind me of Nana. They’re a fruit worth noting because they are rooted here. And because they grow in the forest, ripen in late fall, and boast a bit of a mystique around how and when to eat them. And they taste good too. “Honey sweet with hints of cinnamon” is what April McGreger says about their taste. McGreger claims North Carolina is a persimmon epicentre.
It’s the North American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, not the Asian kaki, Diospyros kaki, that I’m talking about. Hachiya and Fuyu are the common names of the grocery-store-sold kaki persimmons. The massive Oxford Companion to Food suggests these two “superior relatives from the Orient” have eclipsed the North American persimmon in value, but I disagree.
Both are worthy of offering to the gods. I’ve seen kaki on altars of Chinese Buddhists. Here in the Western hemisphere, the genus name Diospyros comes from the Greek words dios pyros, meaning “fruit of the gods.”
The common name “persimmon” is derived from putchamin, pasiminan, or pessamin, all Algonquin words used by the Delaware and Cree nations meaning “dried fruit.” Native to the eastern United States, persimmons were used by American Indians in a variety of ways. Women mixed the pulp with corn meal and ground acorns to make breads while the fruit wriggled its way into cultural lore, turtles and opossums and persimmons, oh my.
Early settlers roasted the seeds of the fruits to make a coffee-like beverage and then African Americans used persimmons to make candy and sweet puddings. In Appalachia, seeds were, and still are, dried and brewed for beer and wine.
Persimmons can be as small as a cherry or as large as a big plum, and are yellowish-pink or orange or red in color when ripe. In 1923 Artemas Ward wrote that peak persimmons -- or as he described them, “the oddly wrinkled lumps of richly concentrated sugar-flesh hanging among the varicoloured leaves of autumn” -- taste like “veritable sugar-plums.”
Today, the American persimmon is rarely cultivated commercially but home cooks and dedicated restaurateurs (taste Bill Smith’s persimmon pudding recipe at Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner) use the fruit for unique dessert breads, cookies, pies, ice cream, sauces and more. Moreover, the wood of the persimmon tree is prized for specific specialty purposes like golf clubs, pool cues and textile shuttles.
David Karp, author of The Fruit Blog, writes “the American persimmon, for whatever reason, seems to inspire a passion in its aficionados well out of proportion with its importance as a crop.” Nana was an aficionado.
Appreciation for the fruit thrives in geographic pockets: Mitchell, Indiana just hosted its 69th Annual Persimmon Festival, stretching celebration of the fruit into a week of local bands, lasagna dinners, beauty pageants, horseshoe tournaments, vesper services, road rallies, recipe contests, and Persimmon Queen Contests. @NorthCarolina: Where are our Persimmon Queen contests?
Foraging for persimmons in the wild is relatively straightforward. They’re easy to spot (look for orange orbs hanging from leafless trees) and easy to harvest (gather fallen fruits from the forest floor). Ripe this time of year, ignore the confusion around whether persimmons can only be gathered after a frost (it’s not true) and just eat them when they’re ready. You’ll know because they’ll taste like veritable sugar-plums.
But any collection of notes on persimmons carries an essential responsibility with it. One thing that you, dear reader, must know. Use caution tasting persimmons, for an unripe fruits bears an utterly unpleasant texture. Ripe persimmons squish to pulp when squeezed. Any firmer, and let the fruit continue ripening. Unripe persimmons inhabit your mouth like an oversized cotton ball with a linger starchy aftertaste. Captain John Smith described it this way: “If it be not ripe it will drawe a mans mouth awrie with much torment.”
Nana tells a story about her momma forbidding her to go up to the persimmon tree without an adult present, lest she might eat a green persimmon and “Turn her mouth inside out.” She ate an unripe fruit anyway, just one, and thought she was going to die. Knowing that she’d get a spanking for disobedience, Nana didn’t want to tell her mother. But reckoning that death was imminent, she told her anyhow, “And momma figured the experience was punishment enough.”
NANA'S PERSIMMON PUDDING
"Cake. Like a really soft cake."
“First, go down to the country. Be sure to wait until the persimmons fall off. Git ‘em off the ground. Don’t go and pick ‘em off the tree now…”
1 cup persimmon pulp
1 cup sweet milk
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup plain flour (aka, not self-rising)
1 scant cup sugar
½ stick butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream your butter and sugar. Add the eggs, flour and milk. Add the persimmon pulp. [Nana didn’t say, but add the remaining ingredients at this point.]
Bake it in a loaf pan for 1 hour between 300 and 350 degrees, according to your oven. I interrupted Nana at this point in her recipe, remembering her pudding as really thin. “Bake it in a baking dish then,” Nana said, “that would be okay.”
Nana called again after we’d hung up:
“When you take it out of the oven it will kindly flop.
Don’t worry, that’s how it’s supposed to do.”