Wed10222014

Food & Wine

Persimmons: Precious, strange autumn treasure

Photo Photo Courtesy Of Eve Hill-Angus Persimmons offer a diverse array of cooking options, from sweet, custardy pulp eaten with a spoon to tangy cookies.

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 child 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 preholiday 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 handpainted sign would hail us on our way out of town: persimmons, a couple of 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.

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

To avoid Hachiya persimmons’ mouth-puckering astringency, we had to let them reach perfect ripeness, waiting until 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 nonastringent 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.

While neither of the 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.

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