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Persimmons: precious strange fall fruit

November 11, 2009

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(article of mine, published in the Los Altos Town Crier Food & Wine Nov. 11, 2009)

Persimmons are native to my childhood. My earliest memories of the pumpkin-colored fruit that many find perplexing—even baffling—are deeply tied to fall, and infused with the specialness of childhood rituals.

When I was a kid in Southern California, my mother and I made annual trips to visit family friends in Yucaipa, a quiet town at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains. The trip usually fell in November, when a pre-holiday spirit stirred us—and persimmons hung in trees, ready for picking.

I would spend a weekend climbing monkey bars in a backyard fragrant with hay and horses. And when we left, we made the persimmon stop.

It was always the same. A hand-painted sign would hail us on our way out of town: persimmons, a couple dollars a bag. Against dark, denuded branches, the orange-red orbs glowed, vibrant as Bakelite beads, baubles somehow both garish and spectral in the dusk.

A ladder was brought from the shadowy porch, and I scrambled into the scraggly tree, palmed the fruit, and piled it into paper bags pulled from the back of our station wagon. Our treasure lay alongside turpentine jugs and the old sheets used to cover my mother’s paintings, and as we rejoined the freeway, I dozed in the wash of traffic lights. I always felt like we were carrying a secret.

Once home, other traditions followed suit. Baking persimmon cookies in my grandmother’s kitchen meant we had reached the heart of fall. Scooped out and baked into spice cookies, persimmons’ bright, slippery pulp turns deep russet and, if unstrained, forms moist, molten slivers that have a flavor close to pumpkin.

I also loved eating the sweet, custardy pulp fresh, doused in cold milk and spooned out of a bowl.

To avoid Hachiya persimmons’ mouth-puckering astringency, we had to let them reach perfect ripeness, waiting till they were almost pudding-soft, delicate in their taut, paper-thin skins.

We were the only people I knew who ate the fruit. And as far as I knew, Yucaipa was the only place to find it.

Moving to the Bay Area for college changed things. Persimmons appeared in new forms, were suddenly more sophisticated and worldly, no longer my secret. I was introduced to Fuyu, the crunchy non-astringent variety that, along with pomegranate seeds and toasted pecans, adorns well-kempt fall salads.

Even the way they grew was more refined. Not a pecking hen in sight; instead, tidy trees in manicured lawns. I don’t pluck them off trees from the fifth step of a paint-spattered ladder anymore; I buy them at farmers markets.

Still, persimmons remain a fruit native to my childhood. And when I recently learned they are also indigenous to North America, the childhood specialness returned. Here was another secret.

While neither of our common, commercially-available varieties—Hachiya and Fuyu—is native, a plum-sized variety exists that was known by the Native Americans, who dried it for the winter. Finding that it grew plentifully in Virginia, John Smith described it as a plum “which they call putchamins,” and wrote, “[If] it be not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awry, with much torment, but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as the apricock.” The name persimmon comes from the Algonquian pessemmin, and the native variety grows mainly in the Southern states.

A recipe from food historian Bill Neal’s Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie (Knopf, 1990) introduced me to a dish as deeply rooted in tradition as my childhood recipes feel to me. Persimmon pudding, according to Neal “was formerly a traditional Thanksgiving dessert in the South [and] is still made for Christmas giving.” Its generous portions of fruit and spice remind me of my grandmother’s persimmon cookies, which I still make every fall.

Persimmon Pudding (from Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie)

½ c. plus 2 Tb. butter
1 ½ c. sugar
3 eggs
2 c. persimmon pulp
1 ¼ c. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. salt
¾ c. milk
Zest and juice of 1 orange
¼ c. plus 2-4 Tb. dark rum
2 Tb. powered sugar

Grease a 9×12-inch baking dish.
Preheat oven to 325° F.
Cream the ½ cup butter and sugar well. Add the eggs, one by one. Stir in the persimmon pulp.
Sift the flour, spices, and salt together. Add to the butter, alternating with the milk. Stir in the orange zest and juice and ¼ cup dark rum. Pour into a greased baking dish and bake for about 1 hour, until lightly browned and set in the middle. Remove from the oven to a cooling rack. Let settle for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile blend the 2 tablespoons butter, sugar, and the remaining dark rum to taste. Prick the top of the pudding well with a fork. Spread the butter-sugar-run mixture all about to be absorbed by the warm pudding. This is delicious warm, cut into small squares.

My Grandmother’s Persimmon Cookies

1 c. Hachiya persimmon pulp
1 tsp. baking soda
½ c. butter, softened
1 c. sugar
1 egg
2 c. flour
½ tsp. ground cloves
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 c. walnuts
1 c. raisins

Dissolve baking soda in persimmon pulp. Cream butter and sugar, then mix in butter and egg, and finally persimmon. In a separate bowl, combine flour and spices; add to wet ingredients. Stir in nuts and raisins. Drop by tablespoon onto a greased cookie sheet and bake in a 327° F oven for 10-12 minutes.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. shylove permalink
    November 15, 2009 10:19 am

    Hi author, this is a great article. I read and very enjoy. I think I agree with you… cheer!!!

  2. grandma permalink
    November 25, 2009 1:23 pm

    This was one of the things I liked to make growing up: persimmon cookies. We got them from neighbors on the hill where we lived in Riverside, CA. And the recipe I used was from one of my colleagues at the elementary school where I was teaching in 1958 – and I couldn’t find any other, in any recipe book. So this is especially interesting to me. I look for persimmons now that I live on the coast, but I don’t find any in the stores, so it’s been a while.

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