When autumn, lovely autumn, swings round these here parts once again, so many things start to fall: leaves, acorns, pine cones, temperatures, humidity levels… Although spring and summer get the most credit as seasons for bountiful harvests, autumn has its bounty, too.
Amongst nature’s many freely offered wild edibles, we finicky humans have overlooked a vast number of scrumptious delicacies as we have evolved (or devolved) from wilderness gatherers to grocery-store, fast-food drive-thru, vending-machine gatherers. To our own detriment.
Now, summertime may be regaled as the season for sweet foraging, for then the many berries are bursting with sugary savory sweetness in bite-size bits. But autumn has its sweetness, too, in particular thanks to one oft-ignored tidbit: the persimmon.
Let me clarify: The wild persimmon of which I speak is the American persimmon, Disopyros virginiana. This is not the baseball-size, bright yellow, imported Japanese/Chinese kaki persimmon (Diospyros kaki you can find in grocery stores. No, D. virginiana is native to the American Southeast, though it has found its way out to the Midwest and even up towards the Northeast of these United States as well. Its fruit is much more humble in size, like a little ping pong ball, and much subtler in color, a sort of pale orange blending into rosy pink and purple depending on its ripeness. It is more sensitive as well, hence its absence from grocery store produce sections.
So to experience the wild persimmon, you must head out into the autumn woods and keep your eye up in the canopy or, alternatively, down on the ground for fallen edible offerings. Then you may discover the lovely American persimmon in all its autumn fecundity.
Persimmons are a rather odd fruit, certainly an acquired taste. Unlike with other modern cultivated fruits, its sweetness is not akin to sucking on candy. No, D. virginiana’s fruit has a subtle, funky sweetness that is hard to characterize exactly. And then when you factor in the seeds, sometimes as many as eight (tending to make the fruit seem like more seed than sweet flesh), you may understand why not too many folks go out foraging persimmons.
Another odd fact about persimmons: They can be hazardous. As the proverb goes, eating an unripe persimmon will turn your mouth inside out. Seriously. That is why your best bet is to wait until the first frost to go ‘simmon pickin’; then the flavor is usually at its best as well. I once made the mistake of gobbling an unripe persimmon. Once. I stupidly (since I knew the proverb) popped it in and chomped down without the necessary preliminary investigation. Big boo-boo. I was laid up for the rest of the day.
Speaking of which, whatever the true etymology of the name “persimmon” might be (supposedly from a Powhatan word for “dry fruit”), I have the notion that “persimmon” is something like the sound you make when you eat an unripe one. Before you keel over and crawl into bed. So maybe the warning is in the name itself!
Still, despite the danger, persimmons are well worth the trouble to find, gather, and gobble. Another problem, though, is getting them in edible condition. Once they fall, they are usually so soft and ripe that they explode on contact. Splat, no more persimmon for you; watch your step. And since the trees grow quite tall and usually do not have low-hanging branches, actually picking the persimmons “fresh” from the tree means help from some new-fangled human contrivance–a ladder or, better yet, a cherry-picker (I said they were tall). Save all that, a method for gathering ripe persimmons is to spread out sheets off the ground so the squishy fruits plop on a soft surface. No splat, more persimmons for you!
Whatever method you use to get ‘em, you have lots of ways to eat ‘em. Fresh, of course, is best–keeping in mind the caveat about unripe ones. They can also be cooked into puddings, cookies, cakes, and jams; this will enhance the sweetness, too, if fresh ones are just too funky-subtle for your modern, cultivated taste buds.
While you can, before they get rotted and squishy on ground and limb, get yourself back to your genetic gatherer origins and go out persimmon pickin’…or gatherin’, or huntin’. Treat yourself to this delicacy of the wild American woods. Find a D. virginiana near you and just stand below with your mouth open…surely one sweet little fruit will fall in sooner or later. For your sake, though, be sure it is a ripe one. Bon appétit.