by Ray Linville
Cool temperatures mean fall fruits and vegetables. When the summer temperatures drop, one tree becomes more noticeable as its round fruit ripens and takes on an orange-brown hue. Is it time to pick persimmons and make pudding?
Many of us remember days from childhood when we asked if the persimmons could be picked. Impatiently we had to wait until the fruit was ready. Picked too early, persimmons can leave a sharp or bitter taste. As many children learn, being patient and giving persimmons a long period to ripen (sometimes as long as until the first frost occurs) can improve the flavor. The extended time increases the sugars and decreases the acids that cause the bitterness.
The key to enjoy this fruit is to avoid an immature persimmon as unknowingly Captain John Smith did in the Jamestown Colony when he tasted the attractive fruit that caught his attention. However, because that persimmon that was so unripe, his observation was less than positive, and he described it as a fruit that draws “a man’s mouth awry with much torment.”
Generations of Southerners have been taught to be patient. Wait, wait, wait. If we do, we can appreciate the rich flavor as well as its sweetness – in fact, among fruits the persimmon’s sugar content is exceeded only by that of dates. When my children were young, their favorite time to visit my hometown of Winston-Salem was the fall when persimmon pudding was always the dessert. We would even canvas the backyard to pick up persimmons that had recently fallen to save for another time.
Such a delicious fruit deserves a party, and on the first Saturday each November in Guilford County, dedicated persimmon fans celebrate with a festival started by Gene Stafford in 2008. Held on his family farm that dates to the Revolutionary War, the event — the Colfax Persimmon Festival – takes its name to honor not only the fruit but also Colfax, a community now part of the town of Oak Ridge that was incorporated about 15 years ago on the outskirts of Greensboro.
Persimmons are the main attractions, although many festival-goers line up first for chicken stew, Brunswick stew, or ham biscuits. The next choice is usually a persimmon treat – typically pudding but cookies, bars, and breads are also tempting.
The big delight of the festival, however, is the chance to buy persimmon pulp (that can be kept frozen for an extended time). Lines form early and sales are brisk. (If you truly enjoy the annual pleasure of picking and smashing the fruit to extract the skin and seed, skip the line initially but reconsider how much work is required to prepare the pulp.)
The festival itself is a celebration of N.C. folklife. Brunswick stew cooks slowly over an open fire in a huge kettle, and cider is made by crushing apples. In addition to food and music, traditional crafts — arrowhead making, blacksmithing, wood turning, and pottery — are demonstrated.
At the festival some people who recently moved to North Carolina are surprised how small the American persimmon is. This fruit, which is native to this state and other areas in the eastern United States, is dwarfed by its much larger Asian relative, which is widely cultivated and frequently found in grocery stores. However, it’s the American variety that holds such fond memories for most of us.
When the fruit begins to fall, you have to scamper quickly. It doesn’t last on the ground much more than about two days. The easy step is picking the fruit off the ground after it has fallen from a tree. Next the hard task awaits – pushing the fruit through a sieve to reveal its mushy texture and to separate the skin and seed. Only pudding that soon is prepared makes this task worthwhile.
The resourceful family uses persimmons for more than only pudding. Bars, breads, cookies, fudge, jam, jelly, and pie are popular. However, in my family, every ounce of pulp is guarded and saved for the favorite – persimmon pudding.
Enjoy this recipe from the early 1900s passed down by several generations in my family.
2 cups persimmon pulp
1½ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cup flour
1½ cup white sugar
1 teaspoon soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon nutmeg
4 tablespoons butter
Directions: Mix pulp, eggs, milk and vanilla. Sift dry ingredients and then stir into pulp mixture. Stir in melted butter. Bake at 350 degrees in greased 9×13-inch pan about 60 minutes or until a knife inserted in the pan comes out clean.
Ray Linville is an associate professor of English and humanities at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, NC, and serves on the board of the N.C. Folklore Society. Read more about Ray’s ramblings at his blog: Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the American South.