Persimmons – Jam on a Tree
Fall is my favorite time of year. The trees look all gussied up, the smell of wood smoke is in the air, nights are cool enough to throw on an extra blanket and the forest holds a special treat if you know where to look. I’m talking about wild persimmons.
Picking persimmons is not advisable. These astringent fruits have so much pucker power when unripe that my Granddaddy used to say, “They’ll turn your face inside out.” That’s why the fruits have to be so ripe that they fall from the tree or fall with a gentle shaking. This usually happens around the time of the first frost. My grandparents would put old quilts under the trees to collect the fallen fruit. Native persimmons are much smaller than the cultivated varieties you find in the grocery store. About 5 of 1”-2” fruits fit in my palm. Ripe fruit are extremely soft, barely holding together inside the thin skins. Animals enjoy these fall delights as well, giving rise to common names of the persimmon tree like possum wood or deer candy. They have a spicy, rich apricot flavor and hold flat, dark seeds. The seeds were used as buttons during the Civil War.
Native persimmons are in the ebony family, can grow to about 60 feet and have dark, scaly bark and yellow fall leaf color. It takes about 100 years for the heartwood to turn dark and become the hard ebony wood that is popular in woodturning. They grow in bottomland or in well-drained forest openings. Male and female trees are needed to produce fruit. For those who enjoy foraging for wild food, this is the time of year to start keeping an eye on the trees as the small, sunset-colored fruit begins to ripen.
The ripe fruit may be eaten raw, cooked or dried and is high in Vitamin C. Native Americans make bread using the fruit pulp which can also be fermented into beer. A tea can be made from the leaves and the roasted seed is used as a coffee substitute. The pulp has also been used as a glaze for pork or possum. Persimmon pudding was one of my grandmamma’s favorite desserts to make. She would serve it for Thanksgiving and it had about the same texture as bread pudding. The pulp is extracted using a food mill or a potato ricer, separating out the pulp from the seeds and skins. The pulp will keep for 6 months in the freezer.
Perusing the Internet for recipes I found this one dating back to the 1930’s from Cleo Isenhour Barrett who lived in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
Aunt Cleo’s Persimmon Pudding
Combine 1 stick of melted butter with 2 cups persimmon pulp, 1.5 cups of sugar, 1.5 cups of milk and 3 beaten eggs. To this mixture add 2 cups of flour, one medium, grated sweet potato, 1 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. allspice, 1 tsp. cloves and 1 tsp. vanilla extract. Bake in a greased 13×9 inch pan at 300 for about an hour or until done. Serve with hard sauce or whipped cream.
If you are lucky enough to find persimmon pudding on your Thanksgiving table this year, give thanks for goodness that comes from the forest.