October 22, 2020

Jed Portman

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Editor’s Letter: Fruit of the Gods

What you need to know about our native persimmon

Summer began winding down months ago, but fall is taking its time here. Deer season has begun, but we’re still harvesting fresh herbs and sandwich-caliber tomatoes. I’m writing to you now on a seventy-degree afternoon, looking past my computer screen to yellow-green trees that are just beginning to blush red and orange.

We aren’t likely to see our first frost for a couple of weeks, but some of you have already weathered your first snowstorm, and our woods are already serving up the fall foraging season’s grand finale: the creamy, delicate native persimmon.

I look forward to the pawpaw’s tropical funk and the black walnut’s umami bass notes each year, but I think our native persimmon defines foraged luxury. A native persimmon tree can be a spectacular sight in itself. In early winter, its sunset-orange fruits cling to its bare branches like ornaments. Although the fruits look ripe when they first turn orange in the early fall, they aren’t ready to eat until they have softened and withered for weeks or months. Then they rain down with satisfying plops, splitting when they hit the ground like tissue-paper packets full of jam. They taste like nature’s own creamsicle pudding, with notes of honey, nutmeg, and cinnamon.

Editor’s Letter: Fruit of the Gods - Quote

I think our native persimmon defines foraged luxury. A native persimmon tree can be a spectacular sight in itself. In early winter, its sunset-orange fruits cling to its bare branches like ornaments.

Nothing so delicious is easy. To start, native persimmon trees are rare compared to our abundant pawpaws and black walnuts, and finding a tree doesn’t guarantee a fall harvest. Only female persimmons produce fruit, which probably explains why the spindly tree behind my childhood home never did, though we coddled it for years. You can find persimmons growing wild in their woodland habitat, but you might be more likely to find feral trees in front yards or along rural byways. For years, I haunted the persimmon-lined backroad that led to a friend’s house.

Then, you have to beat deer, possums, raccoons, wild turkeys, and many other animals to the sticky-sweet bounty. (If you’re lucky enough to do that, make sure to leave some for the winged and four-legged foragers that will gobble up whatever’s left. They deserve holiday-season treats, too, and their options are more limited than ours.)

To harvest persimmons, lay a tarp under a tree and shake the tree gently. Not everyone bothers with a tarp, but I recommend it, because the gooey fruits are hard to clean. If you’re lucky enough to have a persimmon tree on your property, you can leave a tarp out all season.

I have to acknowledge that if you’ve heard anything about our native persimmon, chances are you’ve heard about its mouth-wrecking astringency. Maybe you didn’t even know about the honey-and-vanilla delights waiting on the other side. For years, those in the know have pranked outsiders with underripe persimmons, which are unpleasant enough to turn a person off the whole family of fruits for life. An underripe persimmon tastes chalky and abrasive, more tannic than a mouthful of tea leaves. Few fruits, or foods of any kind, encompass such extremes.

Knowing when a persimmon is ready to eat can be a challenge. You can easily distinguish definitely-not-ready from probably-ready, but there is a spectrum between probably-ready and definitely-ready, with only subtle visual and textural clues that have dramatic consequences for flavor. Generations have figured it out, like the wild food techniques I’ve shared in others editor’s letters, but that takes time.

A few quick tips to get you started: One, never pick a native persimmon. Let it fall. You can’t rush the process. Two, look for fruit so ripe that it has practically dissolved into jam, as mentioned above. It should be beyond soft, and the skin should be deeply wrinkled. Late-season persimmons sometimes take on a purple tinge.

Three, don’t get hung up on the weather. Some traditionalists maintain that persimmons only sweeten after a first frost. That isn’t true. (You probably can’t predict winter weather using a persimmon seed, either, but we can leave that tradition alone for now.) In short, while freezing weather may help sweeten persimmons, and a first frost often corresponds with the beginning of peak persimmon season, native persimmons can ripen with or without a frost, and you’ll still need to be wary of astringent fruit after a frost, or two or three, or a dozen, though of course you’ll be more likely to collect perfect specimens late in the season, if you still have persimmons on your local trees by mid-winter.

You’ll want to pulp your persimmons when you get home. I run each batch through a food mill, which gives me a pudding-like pulp, free of seeds and most of the skin. You can use that immediately or freeze it in an airtight bag or container for up to a year.

The payoff is ambrosial. The persimmon’s genus, Diospyros, means “grain of Zeus” in Greek. The word is often interpreted as “fruit of the gods.” And while all the world’s persimmons are divine, the Chinese and Japanese persimmons that you may be able to find at your local supermarket, cultivars of Diospyros kaki, are no substitute for the heavenly fruits of Diospyros virginiana, too delicate to make the shelves at Kroger.

The New York Times thought otherwise when they published an Indiana persimmon pudding recipe in a 2014 roundup of Thanksgiving favorites from every state in the U.S. Although the recipe’s introduction differentiated between wild Midwestern persimmons and persimmons flown in from in Florida and California, the recipe defaulted to the world’s most popular persimmon variety: the non-astringent, sliceable Fuyu. Surely, that wasn’t what they got from Mitchell, Indiana, Persimmon Festival champ Alverta S. Hart, who you’d think would have at least called for gooey Hachiyas.

Mitchell native Ro Pettiner called the Times after they ran the recipe in 2014, she told the Indianapolis Star. “These people made a horrible mistake,” she said. “I felt like, as the matriarch of my family, I was duty- and honor-bound to give them the history and the experience of my family with persimmon pudding.” The Times never called her back, she said, but she shared her award-winning family recipe with the Star.

Anyone who has tried a custardy native persimmon understands the issue. Asian persimmons are delicious in their own right, though—just different. I pair sweet, mild Fuyu slices with country ham for a wintry take on ham and melon that inspired by chef Jason Stanhope of FIG restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.

We’ll be sending native persimmon inspiration in upcoming issues of Midwesterner. I’m going to let our experienced contributors tell you what to do with the fruit, but I hope you’ll start looking for it now. Your persimmons may hang on into the beginning of next year, but you can’t take one of our region’s most elusive and delicious harvests for granted, so I’m already stocking the freezer for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and 2021.


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