Before Hurricane Hugo roared into Charleston on September 21, 1989, a native persimmon tree said to be the oldest in the country (indeed, in the world, since native persimmons grow only in the New World) gracefully shadowed the lawn of Peter Hanahan’s old house in Ansonborough, a few blocks north of my home and bookstore. It was over 80 feet tall before the storm ripped it in half. Experts had guessed it to be between 400 and 700 years old.
Reaching out over the corner lot, the tree dumped
It’s said that persimmons shouldn’t be eaten until there has been a frost, but that’s not true; in the Lowcountry there is no frost until well after the trees have shed all their fruit. It is true, though, that you must wait until the fruits are very, very ripe. They must be very soft—downright mushy to the touch—or they will be so astringent they’ll pucker your mouth. Ripe native American persimmons are one of the most intensely flavored fruits of the world, aromatic on the palate—flowery, like the finest muscat grapes. You can substitute the Japanese variety in recipes calling for “ ’simmons”; but the flavor of the American variety is altogether different.
Persimmons do not take well to cooking, as they become mealy upon heating. Only in recipes in which the pureed fruit is used as a cookie or tart topping, or in which the flavor is extracted, such as in wine, or in which the texture is rounded by the addition of flour—as in this bread—is the native American persimmon shown off at its best.
The fruits are only
If you look at a map of the range of native persimmons in the United States, you will see what is essentially the states of the Confederacy, though they do grow along roadsides in the southern reaches of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. The easiest way I know to find a persimmon tree is to travel on unlit back roads at night in October and look for the reflections of the eyes of ’possums and ’coons in the trees along the road. The trees are common along the banks of old rice fields, and the rice banks at Turnbridge Plantation down near the Savannah River are filled with them. You will be hard-pressed, however, to beat the wildlife to the ripe persimmons in the wild. Trees in inner cities are better sources.
Recipes for persimmon pudding abound, all similar. But I opt for a dense, moist batter bread without the usual spices that hide the distinctive persimmon flavor.
© 1992 All rights reserved. Published by UNC Press.