Persimmons: Food of the Virginia Gods



Food of the Virginia Gods

Ethan Strickler profiles a fruit unique in taste, appearance, and heritage

By Ethan Strickler

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Picture 1. Hachiya Persimmon held by the author.

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”[1]. 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.”

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Picture 2. Persimmon Risotto. Recipe can be found at

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.[2] Native Americans dried and froze persimmons, used it in breads, and prized it as a nutritious winter food.

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Picture 3. American Persimmons, gathered by the author.

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.

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Picture 4. Baked Persimmon Pudding. Recipe can be found at

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.[3] 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.

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Picture 5. Persimmons on an American Persimmon tree (diospyros virginiana).

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!




Going Whole Hog

Pon-hoss: Glen and Fern Heatwole

Highland County residents share recipes and tips learned from generations of raising hogs for pork

By Susanna Byrd

Pon-hoss is the lesser-known, southern cousin of Scrapple, that Pennsylvania-Dutch delicacy of pork bits and cornmeal. There are very few people who still make Pon-hoss these days and in Highland County, Fern and Glen Heatwole might be the only ones. So special a food is it, that Glen told me a story of an old man who called him up at the store one day:

hog“I heard you still make a good pon-hoss and I want to order some by mail” he said. “Could you send it to where I live now in Florida?”

The old man had moved to Florida from Highland County. He was 94 years old and had heard from the doctor that he only had so much longer to live on this earth. He said that the only thing he wanted to make sure he had before he died was another taste of pon-hoss, the real thing. So Glen wrapped him up a few precious loaves and sent them off to Florida. The old man called back, thoroughly happy and full of compliments. Glen heard that he passed away not long after.

To make Pon-hoss is to also butcher a hog. The process cannot really be done independently if the product is to be the true thing, worthy of an old Highland County man’s memory-infused taste. The various stages of making Pon-hoss correspond with the stages of butchering and it is therefore a day-long process.

Pon-hoss is made in a large copper kettle, like apple butter. As you butcher the hog, all the bones that you remove are tossed into the kettle with water to boil. Throughout the day, bones are added and the pot boils away, extracting the meat, grease and flavor and creating a strong stock. At the end of the day, the bones and bits are strained out. Any remaining meat is stripped off the bones and set aside for “puddings”* (to make scrapple, this meat would be put back into the mixture. According to Mr. Heatwole, true Pon-hoss does not include the meat bits, only the leftover stock).

In the remaining stock, a mixture of 2 parts cornmeal and 1 part flour are added and stirred constantly until it thickens to a cake batter-like consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the mixture into bread pans and freeze. Later, cut the loaves into slices and pan fry them in lard or butter. Delicious with apple butter, applesauce or maple syrup on top.

  • “Puddings meat” is made with these leftover meat bits, lard and salt and pepper.

Self-sealed crock sausage: Donna Hooke, Sandy and Edmond Hevener and Nancy White

One common practice to preserve sausage before electricity was to keep it in a large crock. The raw, ground sausage would be put in a crock and cooked in the oven. The grease would naturally rise to cover the meat and when the sausage was fully cooked, the crock was pulled out of the oven and the lard would congeal in a thick layer on top of the meat. This formed a natural seal that kept the sausage underneath from going bad. The crock would be stored in the root cellar and whenever sausage was desired, you could simply scoop the lard aside, pull some out from below and re-cover the top with the lard.

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Doughnuts, Unwrapped

Maple Doughnuts, Unwrapped


 A treat from Mill Gap, Virginia

By: Susanna Byrd, Allegheny Mountain School Alumn

            If you were born and raised in Mill Gap, Virginia, you know about Maple Doughnuts. But for most of the rest of us, it will be refreshing to hear a story about doughnuts that does not end in an attack of regret or high blood sugar. When they have as rich a story as those that come from Mill Gap, doughnuts deserve a little more of our attention than the drive thru window permits. I’m willing to bet that, surrounded by affection and community as they are, the Mill Gap Doughnuts are ten times more nourishing for your health than their mainstream cousins.

Food with a story is important, as the Virginia Food Heritage Project is so ardently trying to demonstrate. What I crave is food that comes wrapped in the layers of generations, the ebb and flow of cultures, the changes of many thousands of seasons. I don’t want food that comes wrapped in only plastic. If there were a plastic wrapper on the Mill Gap doughnuts, it might display nutritional values, breaking the woven whole of the doughnut into the parcels of guilt associated with fat, sugar and carbohydrate. But a Mill Gap Doughnut is so much bigger than its parts. In its own way, it nourishes community. To find its wrapper, you have to see the places it comes from, talk to the people who make it and share some of yourself in the process.

So we’ll start in Mill Gap. Located near the intersection of Routes 84 and 600 (Little Back Creek Rd), Mill Gap is a small, rural place. It sits strategically in the low place where Rt. 84 comes through one ridge of the numerous North-South mountain chains in Highland County. There is undoubtedly an old well of community in this area, now mostly maintained by church functions and the Ruritans club. That community shows up in force every year on the first and second weekends in March to make and sell maple doughnuts in Monterey at the Highland County Maple Festival. “If your father was a Mill Gap Ruritan, you did something with doughnuts every year,” says Cappie Hull, who grew up in Mill Gap. “When we were little…the Mill Gap Ruritans decided that ‘we have fun making doughnuts down in Mill Gap. Let’s make doughnuts for the maple festival.’ And so in the very beginning, the Ruritans would sell one doughnut and a cup of coffee…”

The Highland County Maple Festival has been held every year since 1958 and now attracts thousands of visitors, who tour ‘sugar houses’ and the ‘sugar bush’ (the grove of Sugar Maple trees that are tapped to make syrup) and partake in all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts, replete with the authentic maple syrup made all over the county. But even before the days if the festival, Mill Gap residents often came together for special occasions of their own like birthdays and holidays. At these gatherings, according to Cappie, there more often than not would be doughnuts frying:

“The people in Mill Gap…had the sleigh ride and they had a family day where generations got together and made the doughnuts, which was usually a Sunday or a weekend or a birthday or a special occasion…and as a family you made the doughnuts. And the grandma and your mom usually made the dough and the children did the hole picking…And it was an event to work together, make the product and then eat it, like a gorge.”

Donna Hooke, who grew up in Mill Gap and now owns a small food store in Monterey called ‘Evelyn’s Pantry,’ remembers her birthdays in Mill Gap:

“For my birthday…in January, we would go to my grandparent’s house and grandaddy would always…pack that hill down and he had barrels alongside the route with fires in them so you could see. And everybody from the neighborhood would come and sleigh ride at night time. And then when you got done, grandma and mom had doughnuts ready to fry and we had a big doughnut feast and hot chocolate or milk.”

And how to make these oh-so-special doughnuts? Well, you’ll have to go to the next Maple Festival (March 8-9 and 15-16) and find the Mill Gap Ruritans themselves selling doughnuts. Even then you’ll only be seeing the facade of what can be a mighty endeavor. In the first years of the festival, the Mill Gappers would set up the doughnut-making operation in the smallest house in town: “Well, back then size didn’t matter, so we went to the smallest house because they were the only people who had ties to Mill Gap. But they lived in Monterey… They had this itty bitty house, and we made doughnuts in that itty bitty house,” recalls Cappie.

Cappie was a young girl in those first years, but she remembers who did what: “The daddies came out to town and probably just sat around. They all sat there, probably 20 of them, to sell you doughnuts. But [the mommies’ and children’s] job was to produce them in that little house…The whole house, the beds, the whole house had doughnuts raisin’.” The youngest children were in charge of “pickin’ holes.” After a mother had used the doughnut cutter to shape the dough, the kids would go and pick out the centers. With maturity came the job of easing the doughnuts into the hot oil to fry. “And then we became professional glazers,” says Cappie fondly, in charge of making and applying the famous maple glaze.

So the Mill Gap doughnuts really brought the community together. And they still do; “If you don’t have your own personal business, you’re still making doughnuts [during Maple Festival],” says Donna. Cappie nods, saying that during the Maple Festival, she always helps out. “We couldn’t come to town and not feel like we had to.” I personally am glad that the community holds so strong; Now, “unwrapped”, I can taste that distinct flavor, as I sink my teeth into stories and maple sweetness all at once.

Recipes that Restore

The Times and Tastes of Culpeper Cookbook

The Times and Tastes of Culpeper

Coffee cake, Virginia batter cake, and more recipes can be found in The Times and Tastes of Culpeper, an incredible book with recipes that range from historic to modern, from the era in which “slow food” was the only sort available, to today’s time-saving recipes. This book has 300 years of history and 300 years of recipes in it — people came to the Culpeper area in the early 1700s and the recipes cover the entire timespan. Not only do these recipes have a rich history, but they are local — all the recipes in the book are from Culpeper or from cookbooks that would have been used in their day!

All proceeds from the sale of this cookbook will be dedicated to the repair of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which was damaged in the 2011 earthquake. Click here to find out how to get a copy of your own!

Further Reading: Food heritage-related books!

The Times and Tastes of Culpeper, by members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, by Andrew Beahrs

The Pioneer Village Cookbook:  Reliable Receipts & Curious Remedies, by Ann Chandonnet

Dishing Up Virginia, by Patrick Evans-Hylton

The Taste of America, by John and Karen Hess

Out of the Ordinary: Recipes from The Hingham Historical Society, by The Hingham Historical Society

Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Stories From Western Albemarle, by Phil James

Food on the Frontier: Minnesota Cooking from 1850 to 1900 with Selected Recipes, by Marjorie Kreidberg

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, by Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky

The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food – Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation’s Food was Seasonal, by Mark Kurlansky

Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky

The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting Deer for Food, by Jackson Landers

An Irresistable History of Southern Food: Four Centuries of Black-Eyed Peas, Collard Greens and Whole Hog Barbecue, by Rick McDaniel

Bush Medicine of the Bahamas, by Jeff McCormack

Desert Terrior: Exploring the Unique Flavors of Sundry Places of the Borderlands, by Gary Nabhan

Where Our Food Comes From, by Gary Nabhan

Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, by Andrew F. Smith

Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in American, by Andrew F. Smith

Fading Feast: A Compendium of Disappearing American Regional Foods, by Raymond Sokolov

A Garden Supper Tonight:  Historic Seasonal Recipes & Home Lore, by Barbara Swell

Mama’s in the Kitchen:  Weird & Wonderful Home Cooking 1900-1950, by Barbara Swell

Old-time Farmhouse Cooking:  Rural American Recipes & Farm Lore, by Barbara Swell

The Way We Ate: Pacific Northwest Cooking, 1843-1900, by Jacqueline B. Williams

Brunswick Stew!

The origins of the popular southern dish, Brunswick Stew, is often debated. “One version of Brunswick Stew traces its origins to Brunswick County, Virginia. Tradition has it that the dish was created in 1828 by an African-American chef, ‘Uncle’ Jimmy Matthews. While serving as camp cook during a hunting expedition, Matthews shot squirrels combined them with onions, dry bread and other ingredients, and made dinner.”

 First catch your chickens, clean and cut them.

And in an iron pot you put them.

And water nearly to the top

And in it salt and pepper drop;

Boil slowly. Your tomatoes peel;

Put in a shin or so of veal;

And for the flavor bear in mind,

A chunk of middling with the rind.

Next some onions you throw in,

the young and tender skin,

And butter beans do not forget;

And what is more important yet;

The corn, but do not be too fast,

For you must cut and add it last;

For better than the flour you’ll find it’ll do

To give some thickness to the stew.

Some lemon peel cut very thin

May then be added and stirred in,

And ere it’s taken from the fire

Give it a dash of Worcestershire,

And soon you will hear its praises ring,

This is a dish fit for a king.

–Virginia Woodroof, 1930

This recipe was supplied by Ann Chandonnet, author of The Pioneer Village Cookbook, which can be found here! Don’t like to cook? Attend Richmond’s Brunswick Stew Festival next year! More information can be found on our food heritage events page.

Virginia Farm-To-Table Conference

farmtotablelogoThe 2013 Virginia Farm-to-Table Conference: “Healthy Food and Vibrant Farms for the Common Wealth and Common Good” is this Wednesday, December 4 and Thursday, December 5. The conference includes two days full of speakers, panel discussions, and networking opportunities organized to address critical challenges surrounding a sustainable food system. Virginia Cooperative Extension and Natural Resources Conservation Service are hosting the event in cooperation with community partners! Learn more about how to attend the conference at their website here!

Turkeys and Justice!

Bourbon RedMost Americans today have never tasted a heritage turkey! Theobjective of the Heritage Turkey Foundation is “to save heritage breeds of turkeys by returning them to the holiday tables of ordinary American families: Better food at an affordable price.” Helping communities exercise their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food is part of a growing movement called food justice.  In this post, author Barbara Kingsolver describes her experience raising the turkey we introduced last week, the Bourbon Red.

Heritage Turkeys!

heritagefoodsusaDid you know many heritage breeds of turkeys, like the Bourbon Red, are endangered species? Heritage Foods USA was founded over ten years ago to sell meat from heritage animal breeds that are anti-biotic free and raised on pasture. If you haven’t bought your thanksgiving turkey yet, consider buying one from them! If you can’t cook your own, you should join UVa’s School of Architecture for the annual 100-mile thanksgiving this Thursday, November 21 at 7. For more information, email