Like the cooing of mourning doves in a river bottom and colorful chestnut oak acorns littering a forest floor, the smell of fermenting persimmons on the ground helps define autumn in western North Carolina.
Persimmons are so plentiful this year that some folks may realize for the first time that they have these trees growing nearby.
Diospyros virginiana, the scientific name of the under-rated American persimmon tree, reveals an appreciation of its value. The Greek root words of Diospyros mean “food of the Gods.” “Persimmon” is reportedly from an Algonquin Indian word.
Although not found in most kitchens, persimmons are high in vitamin C, iron and calcium and contain the digestive enzymes papain and bromelain.
They’re an important source of nourishment for deer, wild turkey, foxes, raccoons, skunks, ‘possums and other wildlife. The seeds are spread in wildlife droppings, giving each seedling a dose of fertilizer.
Persimmon wood, in the ebony family, is very hard and has been used in golf club heads and other specialty products. American Persimmon trees are usually male or female, but some are self-fertile. Their flowers attract honeybees.
Capt. James Smith wrote about persimmons in 1607, the same year he helped establish America’s first permanent European settlement in what now is Virginia: “If it not be ripe it will drawe a mans mouth awrie with much torment; but when ripe it is as delicious as an Apricoc.”
Perhaps Smith’s experience resulted from a Powhatan Indian eager to see an Englishman’s mouth contorted from the astringent chemicals (mostly tannins) in an unripe persimmon. An astringent actually dries and shrinks body tissue.
Naturalist Henry Thoreau described the oral impact of biting into the unripe fruit as “commonly puckery.”
Everyone should experience this at least once, but have water or a ripe persimmon to chase it for relief. Wild animals also experience “puckery,” so maybe this is nature’s way of keeping the fruit from being consumed before seeds are mature enough to be dispersed.
I grew up being told that a good first frost was needed to prevent persimmons from making a mouth pucker, but I saw on a Clemson University website that this wasn’t true. A Clemson “expert” said it’s a matter of astringent substances being converted to sugar as persimmons ripen.
I read elsewhere that the first frost makes persimmons sweeter by turning their starches into sugar.
All things considered, I’ll continue waiting until persimmons have been zapped well by frost and are on the ground.
Ripe persimmons, about the size of a hickory nut, are pinkish-orange throughout. They’re almost mushy to the touch and the flesh inside has been likened in texture to a cooked sweet potato or a plum when ripe. They have a mild, sweet taste with natural hints of cinnamon.
Persimmons can be used for a lot of culinary purposes, but a favorite is persimmon pudding. When I was around age 10, my mother made this a few times when I came home with persimmons from a large tree left in a cornfield along Mill Creek (more officially Little Cub Creek) in Wilkesboro. I can appreciate better now her efforts because removing the seeds and skins from persimmon pulp is no small task.
Baked persimmon pudding
Here’s a recipe for baked persimmon pudding, but first make sure the ‘simmons are ripe.
Ingredients: 1 cup all-purpose flour, half teaspoon salt, half teaspoon baking soda, three-fourths cup sugar, one cup persimmon pulp, two eggs (beaten), one cup milk, half teaspoon grated lemon rind, two tablespoons butter or margarine, softened. Depending on personal tastes, add half a teaspoon of cloves and/or half a teaspoon of allspice.
Sift together flour, salt, baking soda, and sugar. Add persimmon pulp to the flour mixture along with beaten eggs, milk, lemon rind and butter. Mix well. Turn batter into a well-greased and floured 8x8x2-inch square baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 55 minutes, or until pudding is done. Serves six. To make persimmon pulp: Peel soft ripe fruit and strain the pulp or mash, removing the seeds. Add 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice to each cup of persimmon pulp to prevent discoloration if it isn’t to be used right away.
Serve it warm with whipped cream or other dessert sauce.