The tree didn’t stand out to me as we walked back to the car.
Looking scrubby and neglected, it could have been any kind of small tree standing in the overgrown neutral ground of what had been planned as a subdivision. A casual observer would think, as I did, that it was planted to ornament a yard or shade a house that was never built.
My wife, however, stopped and pointed. “Persimmons,” she said.
I noticed the reddish fruit on the branches and wondered if the tree predated the subdivision. Maybe someone living on what had been the outskirts of Foley years ago had put in the seedling hoping for a fruitful future.
I saw my wife examining the tree and knew what she was thinking.
Well, Foley had purchased the property and added it to the adjoining park, so it wasn’t as though the site belonged to a private individual. You could say these were public persimmons.
On other walks, we’d seen people collecting pecans in the fall and picking blackberries in the summer. I also noticed the ground under the tree littered with fruit that had fallen unpicked. It wasn’t as though people were lining up for the persimmons.
We took a few. If anyone else did come by, many more were available.
I doubted that many people would come by. Persimmons have a long history in Southern culture, but don’t seem to be much in demand these days.
A traveler with the de Soto expedition in the 1540s described Indians baking loaves with the fruit, the first reference to persimmon bread that I know of.
In colonial Jamestown in 1612, Capt. John Smith of Pocahontas fame said the ripe fruit was “as delicious as an Apricock”
An unripe persimmon, however, was tart enough to cause “much torment,” Smith wrote.
The persimmons we see today are not the native species, but varieties imported in the 19th century. Many come from Asia, such as the variety from China known as the Japanese persimmon.
Maybe if the fruit was called by its Asian name, kaki, and sold as an import the food fanatics would clamor for the exotic orbs.
Persimmons are just quaint and old-fashioned, something your grandparents might have eaten. ¶
You can eat a ripe persimmon like an apple, just have a lot of napkins handy and don’t plan on wearing your shirt anywhere fancy later, or, for that matter, ever again.
Most people cook with them, such as my wife’s persimmon bread. She separates the sweet semi-liquid pulp from the smooth skin and seeds, mixing the fruit with flour, brown sugar and pecans.
Cooking is not an exact science. The liquid content varies as does the cooking time. A cook can go through a great many toothpicks and a bit of guesswork trying to see if the bread is done.
A family friend familiar with the art of Southern cooking gave my wife a persimmon bread recipe that resolved the dilemma.
The time comes, however, when the kitchen is filled with the smell of fruit, cinnamon and allspice. The dark, moist loaf that comes out of the oven is a Southern tradition that traces its ancestry back long before the first Europeans arrived.
My wife usually presents some as gifts to people such as the property owners who let us pick the persimmons and others. The other day, I dropped off a loaf at the veterinarian’s office when I brought one of the cats by.
One of the office workers said she’d never had persimmon bread. “People don’t make that anymore,” a woman standing in line with a small dog said.
I placed the loaf on the counter. “Some people still do,” I said. “It’s worth it.”
Guy Busby is a writer living in Silverhill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.