I’ve always had a fascination for names and their origins. One of my favorite conversation starters is to ask a new friend how she or he got their name. In my case, the name given to me is Steve, not Steven or Stephen. My practical father reasoned that “People will call him Steve, so we might as well name him that in the first place.”
My mother maintained that I was named after a great-great uncle who had died in a farm accident about the time she was born. But my only connection to him was a family photograph showing him standing in farm overalls beside one of his prize draft mules. My father, on the other hand, claimed that I was named after one of his favorite newspaper comic strip characters in the mid-1940s—Steve Canyon. Canyon was portrayed as a World War II veteran who returned to the service during the Korean Conflict and served as an Air Force officer for the strip’s 40-year run. I recently discovered, however, that the Steve Canyon comic strip didn’t appear in newspapers until two months after I was born, which casts doubt on my Dad’s explanation for my name. Yet all through childhood, I thought I was named for Steve Canyon—and that was a source of amusement and pride for me even then.
I didn’t have any nicknames growing up, as did some of my friends—at least none that stuck. There was, however, a short time in elementary school when I acquired a nickname based on my last name. “Hey Persimmons!” my grade school friends would call whenever they were trying to get my attention. And this began my lifelong identity with the American wild persimmon.
Persimmons is not a nickname that one would acquire everywhere. Although people may have heard of the American persimmon, it doesn’t grow anywhere other than in the southeastern and south-central United States. Even the persimmon trees native to my southern Indiana homeland, are at the northernmost extent of their natural range and their distribution is spotty.
The word ‘persimmon’ has been in use since at least the 1660s when it appeared on a British Army Quartermaster’s inventory. There have been a number of spellings over time—pushemin, pessemmin and possimon for example. I like to think these spelling differences may reflect varied regional pronunciations of the word.
Most linguists believe the name persimmon was originally derived from an Algonquin Indian word translated “choke fruit.” This probably reflects the persimmon fruit’s reputation for being bitter before it ripens. A friend of mine from Indiana, who has never actually eaten persimmons, once remarked to me, “My mouth puckers every time I hear the word persimmon,” which shows that the reputation of this fruit as a bitter-tasting one is deep-seated in areas where it grows.
Persimmon fruit undergoes a dramatic transformation in taste when it ripens and falls to the ground. One nursery catalog described the fully-ripened persimmon as “the most luscious of all fruits.” Persimmon is classified within the genus Diospyros, a name derived from Greek words meaning “the fruit of the gods.” Clearly, the botanist who originated that name had tasted the ripened persimmon fruit. Considerable folklore has developed around this fruit as well. For example, some believe that frost is needed to change the fruit’s taste from bitter to sweet. Others contend that it’s possible to forecast the weather from persimmon seeds, but more about that later.
Besides its association with my only childhood nickname, the term persimmon also brings to me thoughts of—pudding. There are other foods from my youth for which I have fondness, but persimmon pudding is unique for me. Few other people I know have ever experienced its distinctive taste and consistency. The essential ingredient of persimmon pudding is persimmon fruit, of course, or more exactly a “pulp” made from the fruit by mashing and straining it to remove seeds and skins. Although there are over 180 species worldwide within the Diospyros genus, only two are native to the United States—and only one of those, the American Persimmon, produces fruit that can be made into the pudding I knew growing up in Indiana.
My family has a long-standing connection with persimmons and persimmon pudding. My Grandmother Christine was a naturalist and could identify persimmon trees both by their leaves and bark. Its bark has a distinctive, deeply-checked pattern that resembles the hide of an alligator. In the fall of 1909, while Christine was still a student at Indiana University, she made a weekend trip to her home in southern Indiana. When she returned, her sister Matilda (who was also a student at Indiana at the time) wrote in her journal that “Christy…brought us [a] boxful of persimmons.” Those persimmons likely ended up in a pudding that was shared with the women who lived with Christine and Matilda in their rooming house in Bloomington.
However, it is my other grandmother, Grace, with whom I most associate persimmon pudding as a child. She had grown up on a farm in the backwoods hills of Martin County, Indiana, where persimmon trees grow in abundance. Her family, of course, kept a garden each year, but they also gathered and ate wild plants. Paw paws, hickory nuts, walnuts, blackberries—and persimmons—would have been present in her childhood diet, and persimmon pudding was commonly served at her family’s table. She prepared the first persimmon pudding I ever tasted as a boy. That pudding was surely made from the same recipe passed down to her by her mother and is the one that I still prefer today:
Mix two large eggs and 2 cups of sugar. Add 1 cup of milk and 2 cups of persimmon pulp. Add 1 1/3 cup of flour and 2 tablespoons of cinnamon. Finally, mix in ½ cup of buttermilk into which is dissolved 1 tablespoon of soda. Bake for one hour at 350 degrees.
My Grandma Grace cut her pudding into small squares, which were then served individually with whipped cream on top. Some families in Indiana used other kinds of toppings for persimmon pudding, but we always stuck with whipped cream.
As a young adult in the 1960s, I became interested in nature and the environment. During that time, I read from a series of books published then under the title Foxfire. These books were the outgrowth of a project conducted by some high school students in rural southern Appalachia. The students wrote articles documenting traditional folklore and other indigenous knowledge in their area. Some included information about gathering and preparing wild plant foods. One article in the series considered foods that could be made from wild persimmons. In addition to pudding, the article also gave instructions for making persimmon bread, pie, marmalade—and beer! These writings enhanced my appreciation for folklore, as well as giving me a greater appreciation for my own ancestors’ knowledge about these things.
In addition to the Foxfire books, naturalist Euell Gibbons published another popular book at that time titled Stalking the Wild Asparagus. It introduced the reader to a diversity of foods that could be acquired from wild plants. In the 1970s, Gibbons was best known for his television commercials in which he was shown in a natural setting eating “Grape-Nuts” breakfast cereal. He would take a bite of the cereal and then announce, “It tastes just like wild hickory nuts.” Although his endorsements never convinced me to eat Grape-Nuts cereal, his book focusing on the importance of wild foods also inspired me to have a higher regard for my family’s traditional use of wild plants. In addition to eating persimmon pudding during childhood, I also drank tea made from the wild sassafras tree. I picked wild blackberries, which were made by my grandmothers into delicious cobblers. Each spring, my Aunt Matilda prepared a “mess o’ greens” from wild dandelion leaves picked from her yard. She believed these helped to “thin her blood” after a long winter.
But of all these wild foods, persimmon pudding was—and is—my favorite. I’ve more recently learned that persimmons were originally known as a food in the Old South. My Grandmother Christine owned a set of nature books dating to the early 1900s. One of them contains a section about persimmons; it states: “…the southerner born and bred knows and delights in this native fruit.” That book then offers an interesting bit of lore when it states that opossums appreciate ripe persimmon fruit as much as humans do. “Possums an’ ‘simmons come together,” goes an old saying in the South. I once asked one of the elders in my family about this connection between opossums and persimmons. He responded, “To germinate, a persimmon seed has to first pass through a possum.”
The coat of a newly-ripened persimmon seed is very tough, and it is reasonable that passing it through the digestive tract of an opossum or some other animal might help predispose it to faster germination. So opossums and persimmons may indeed fit together from the standpoint of natural propagation. But for anyone desiring to acquire and eat the fruit, it’s essential to get to it before another critter does!
My grandmother’s early-20th Century book also states that roasted opossum and persimmon pudding were traditional fare together at old-time holiday meals in the South. Some of my ancestors moved to Indiana from the South, so it’s probable their taste for persimmons and persimmon pudding came along with them. Thankfully, whatever association may have once existed in my family between roasted opossum and persimmon pudding was long-lost by the time I came along!
Stalking wild persimmons continues for me. It had been a number of years since I had eaten persimmon pudding when I made a trip to my southern Indiana homeland in the fall of 2007. I set my intentions on acquiring some persimmon pulp during that trip and then baking it into a pudding. After I arrived, I asked around about acquiring some pulp, but learned that it was in very short supply that fall. I found one local farmer, however, who still had some in his freezer from the previous year. He gave me a pint of his pulp and I began to relish the thought of once again tasting “the fruit of the gods.”
When I think I have heard all there is to know about persimmons, another bit of lore emerges. In advance of my trip to Indiana in 2007, I met a friend from Missouri who had also known persimmons in her childhood. She asked me, “Did you know that you can forecast the weather with persimmon seeds?” I told her I did not, and asked her how? She explained that, during her growing up years in Missouri, her family each fall would slice open some fresh persimmon seeds to learn what kind of winter it would be. I thought this idea might be unique to Missouri, so during my time in Indiana, I asked my family and acquaintances there whether they knew of this folklore. Some did. A friend, Delores, obtained a few ripened persimmons from that fall and I determined to examine their seeds, just as my Missouri friend had instructed me.
My wife, Mary Ann, my mother, and I gathered one evening in Delores’ kitchen to perform our ritual cutting of the persimmon seeds. They do have very tough seed coats, plus they are small and awkward to handle. Mary Ann was finally able to cut one of the seeds lengthwise. There, inside and clearly visible, were two small outlines of a spoon. My friend had told me that finding the shape of a spoon inside a persimmon seed indicates that the coming winter will be mild with lots of snow. Each of the persimmon seeds we examined that evening spoke a single voice—all bore spoons inside. The winter of 2007-2008 was going to be a good one for the snow shovel!
My mind’s reaction to forecasting weather by observing patterns inside persimmon seeds was initially skepticism, just as it was when I first learned that some people believe frost is needed to fully ripen the persimmon fruit. As a plant scientist, there would seem to be little physiological basis for such assertions.
But is that really the point? I once heard a saying that the true beauty of a sunset cannot be reduced to arithmetic. Similarly, not everything that matters in the domain of folklore and family tradition has to stand the test of scientific validity. Persimmons—and especially persimmon pudding—are among the cherished traditions that symbolize continuity and consistency within my family and my life. Persimmons come to me through instinctual senses—taste, smell, memory and wonder. And in the realm of my life’s meaning, these senses may be most important of all.
I recently told my cousin and his wife about my fascination with and attraction to persimmons. Peggy and George Rapp are lifelong residents of Indiana and she is also an excellent oil painter. In the course of our conversation, she agreed to create for me a still life picture of some persimmons. Below shows the result of her labor; her depiction of “the fruit of the gods” now graces my home.
This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011. All rights reserved.