Food of the Virginia Gods
Ethan Strickler profiles a fruit unique in taste, appearance, and heritage
By Ethan Strickler
This time of year in central Virginia, and over much of southeastern North America, you may come across a peculiar, orange fruit either dangling from naked tree branches or resting softly on the ground below its mother tree. The taste, for those who do not know, is very unique, but incredibly delicious.
This “forgotten” fruit is the American Persimmon. The scientific name, Diospyros Virginiana (Picture 5), roughly translates to “food of the gods from Virginia”. The fruit is astringent and mouth numbing while still green. It is written that Captain John Smith, one of the most famous early Virginians, warned others about eating unripe persimmons, stating that, “If it is not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awry with much torment.”
However, American persimmons are very sweet, and exhibit a flavor profile with hints of date and plum after they ripen in mid to late fall. John Smith even compared them to another fruit, stating “…when it is ripe, it is delicious as an apricot.” They are best, and sweetest, after the first hard freeze of the season. Although Persimmons ripen at different times between late September and early December, the best time to forage and find persimmons in Virginia is during the month of November. That being said, I am still foraging wild American persimmons right now, during the second week of December, and last week I was able to gather enough for another round of persimmon pudding (Picture 4.)
The American Persimmon’s range includes much of the southeastern part of the United States, extending from Oklahoma east to the Atlantic and from just north of the Ohio River south to the gulf of Mexico. It belongs to the ebony tree family. This family of plants and trees is common in Asia, where persimmons are popular and widely cultivated. In North America, the American Persimmon got its name from the Algonquin word pasimenan, meaning “fruit artificially dried or dry fruit”. The name refers to the high concentrations of tannins in, and the astringency of, unripe persimmons.
There are many documented uses of American Persimmons. Along with being planted for its delicious fruit, dried persimmons are used in baked goods and fermented with cornmeal into a type of beer, while the roasted and ground seeds are used as a substitute for coffee. Native Americans dried and froze persimmons, used it in breads, and prized it as a nutritious winter food.
Persimmons hailing from Asia also have a history and presence both locally and in North America in general. J. Russell Smith, an economist, geographer, and plant breeder from the early 20th century and author of Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, grew oriental persimmons he brought back from China in the 1930s on his homestead near Front Royal, Virginia. Smith’s “Great Wall” oriental persimmon is sold by Virginia nursery Edible Landscaping. The nursery carries four named cultivars of Native American Persimmon, nineteen varieties of oriental persimmons, and several hybrids.
There are several local businesses and organizations that promote the use and culinary possibilities of persimmons. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello has a workshop every October showcasing edible and native fruits and nuts, which gives tips on how to prepare American Persimmons and many other native foods. Edible Landscaping Nursery, who I mentioned previously, is located near Afton in northern Nelson County, VA, and holds a Persimmon Festival every fall to celebrate this wonderful fruit. Farmstead Ferments, a local business known for their delicious krauts and fermented beverages, uses persimmons to flavor one of their water kefir sodas. Cville Foodscapes, an edible landscaping cooperative in Charlottesville, uses persimmon trees in their garden and food forests designs, in addition to offering recipes and information on both Fuyu and American persimmons through their website. Fuyu persimmons are also offered for sale through horse and buggy produce. The local excitement about persimmons makes it clear that this amazing fruit is a part of our region’s current consciousness as much as it is a part of our food heritage.
Although I had foraged, gathered, and eaten wild persimmons before, I had never tried American Persimmons, or Oriental Persimmons for that matter, in any of the numerous persimmon recipes I have come across over the years. This fall, I decided to amp up my foraging efforts (Picture 3) in order to gather enough persimmons for several trials of persimmon pudding (Picture 4). I found that 1-cup of persimmon pulp represented about 20 to 25 ripe American Persimmons. The persimmon pudding pictured below was absolutely delicious. In addition to kitchen experiments with American Persimmons, I also bought and prepared Hachiya Persimmons, an oriental variety. The Persimmon Risotto (Picture 2) that I made with them was also delectable.
Persimmons are an incredibly versatile and delicious fruit. American Persimmon trees are native to central Virginia, are found abundantly along old fencerows and back roads, and have provided food for people living in this region for a very long time. This winter, if you see any persimmons still hanging from a tree, shake a couple off for a wonderful, wild, and flavorful snack!