By MM Pack
Art by Greg Martin
Possum up in a ’simmon tree, raccoon on the ground,
Raccoon said, “you son of a gun, shake them ’simmons down!”
—American folk song
Possums, raccoons, squirrels, deer, insects and humans—everyone’s crazy for ripe persimmons in the fall. Astringently inedible before ripening, these tree fruits (actually large berries) turn into juicy globes of complex sweetness once the weather turns cool.
Wild critters enjoy them just as they are, but we who have kitchens get busy turning them into seasonal puddings, salads, sauces, jams, breads and pastries. Early American settlers even used persimmons to make wine, beer and vinegar.
Members of the ebony family, about 450 persimmon varieties grow across the globe, primarily in the tropics. Only two are native to North America and, lucky for us, both grow in Texas. Various Asian persimmons (originating in China) have been naturalized in the United States since the 19th century—those grow pretty well in Texas, too.
American Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) bear small dark purplish-orange fruit. Indigenous to the American South, including East Texas, these persimmons were an important nutritional source for Native Americans. In fact, the word persimmon comes from the Algonquin pessamin, meaning chokefruit. In 1612, Captain John Smith of Virginia wrote, “If it be not ripe it will drawe a man’s mouth awrie, with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock.”
On the Gulf Coast, Atakapa Indians called this fruit piakimin; early French settlers adapted it to plaquemine (as in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish). Elias Wightman, a surveyor for Stephen F. Austin in the 1820s, documented persimmon groves in southeast Texas, “which bear that excellent fruit only excelled in flavor and sweetness by the fig.”
Texas Persimmons (Diospyros texana) are resilient, graceful trees found from northern Mexico to Central Texas. Extremely drought-resistant, they produce inch-long black fruit filled with seeds. German settler Viktor Bracht wrote in 1848, “The black persimmon is a medlar-like bush that is common. A tasty preserve may be made from it. Eaten fresh, the fruit has a mild, sweet taste.” This fruit was used in Mexico to dye animal hides; it also had various medicinal applications. In Austin, an award-winning Texas Persimmon grows in Mayfield Park; it was designated the city’s 2009 Small Tree of the Year.
Asian Persimmons (Diospyros kaki) have larger fruit than the native varieties, and are cultivated commercially. Most common are the round Fuyu, eaten raw and crunchy like an apple, and the Hachiya, edible only when soft and gelatinous. Both turn gorgeously red-orange when ripe.
Locally, persimmons are available in late fall at farmers markets and in CSA shares; there are also a few pick-your-own orchards. Ripe persimmons should be eaten or processed within a few days; the not-quite-ready ones will ripen in the refrigerator.
Except for dishes made with fresh Fuyus, most persimmon recipes call for pulp. One way to make pulp is to simmer ripe fruit for five to ten minutes in a heavy saucepan over low heat with a little water. When the skins burst, cool the pulp and strain it to remove the seeds and skins. Keep the pulp in the fridge for making persimmon treats, or freeze it for later.
RecipesFuyu Persimmon with Vietnamese Chili Salt, Courtesy of Chef Louis Singh, Dish a Licious
Persimmon Flan, Courtesy of Chef Esteban Escobar, Vino Vino
Winter Lettuces with Fresh Persimmons and Toasted walnuts, Courtesy of Chef Beth Pav, Cooking by Design Culinary Studio
Persimmon Bundt Cake with Italian Cream Cheese Frosting, Courtesy of Chef Sibby Barrett, Onion Creek Kitchens
Persimmon Martini, Courtesy of Chef Joel Welch, Kerbey Lane Cafe Persimmon and Pecan Chutney, Courtesy of Jesse Griffiths and Tamara Mayfield, Dai Due