Stalking Wild Persimmons

Bark of a persimmon tree in Martin County, Indiana

Bark of a persimmon tree in Martin County, Indiana

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.”

Pattern of a spoon inside persimmon seed (2007)

Pattern of a spoon inside persimmon seed (2007)

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.

Margaret and Steve Simmons with fresh-baked persimmon pudding (2007)

Margaret and Steve Simmons with fresh-baked persimmon pudding (2007)

Epilogue

            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.

Painting of persimmon fruit by Peggy Rapp (2010)

Painting of persimmon fruit by Peggy Rapp (2011)

_______________________________

This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011.  All rights reserved.

36 Responses to Stalking Wild Persimmons

  1. Don Coon says:

    Steve, thanks for the education on Persimmons and the uses of them and the wood. I won’t call you “Hey Persimmons”.

  2. Carol Tyx says:

    Hi Steve,
    It took a snow day to make space to visit your site, which I’d been meaning to do ever since you sent the announcement. I absolutely love the painting you chose for the header–it so fits with your sense of place. When I was a graduate student at The U of Iowa, I rented a basement apartment. Next to my concrete parking pad grew a persimmon tree, and in the fall I’d have orange splotches on my car. I decided I needed to do something with the fruit before it fell, and I looked in my old Joy of Cooking for possibilities: yep, persimmon pudding. I made it 5 or 6 times during my tenancy at that apartment, and I loved it! So for me, persimmon pudding resonates with leaving my family behind in Ohio and trying something new and wild!

    The blog format allows for a blend of photos and essays that fit so well with your talents. The photo of you writing with grandson Sam is precious. I look forward to more essays, maybe with a little less snow–although maybe the persimmon seeds would have predicted this 14 inch fall.

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for your response to my essay, Carol. Coming from YOU, it means a lot! And knowing that you have also tasted the “fruit of the gods” opens a whole new level of our common affinity. 🙂 I didn’t slice open any persimmon seeds this past fall, but based on the abundant snow we’ve had THIS winter, there must have been multiple spoons outlined inside this year!

      I could see an essay coming for you, Carol, about persimmon pudding as a symbol of your new identity and independence when you moved to Iowa. Incidentally, the painting on my site is by one of the artists who lived in Brown County in southern Indiana during the early 1900s. My grandmother got to know those artists when she was young and one of my future essays considers her relationship with them and their influences on her–and her upon them. So stay tuned…

  3. Mary Beth Schneider says:

    I enjoyed your story and the great memories it inspired of Indiana. I had also been looking for a good receipe for persimmon pudding. Just knowing this receipe came from your Grandma Grace it has to be delicious! I will use cream instead of the whipped cream as that was our tradition. Thanks cous for a great story.

    • steverobert says:

      Glad to know you found my website, Mary Beth. There will be more essays posted in the future that explore my connections to our Indiana homeland, which I expect you will find meaningful too. Hope you’ll come back and visit again. 🙂

  4. Jo Cotterman says:

    Lovely, fun essay, Steve. Reminds me of the times that my family made scrumptious cherry pies from a neighbors tree – on those rare occasions when we were able to snatch enough fruit from the voracious birds! It was truly a family affair – my dad and brothers picking and pitting the cherries, Mom and me baking the pie, and of course, all of us eating it! Good summer memories… Thanks for helping them surface on this icy day.

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for reading my essay, Jo, and posting your ‘resonance.’ I can’t say that persimmon puddings in my day were quite the family endeavor that your cherry pies were to make–except for the eating part, of course. I do have one remembrance of picking cherries from a tree in our backyard in Terre Haute, but as you say, the birds got most of them. Cherry pie still is my favorite of all, although I seldom have one made from anything other than cherries out of a can. ;-(

  5. Norma Welty says:

    Steve, your persimmon essay brough back the fiist and only time I tasted that fruit of the gods. I was visiting my cousins in Arkansas and when we went to play in the woods one of them a greenish fruit from the lower part of a tree (or maybe from the ground) and told me to take a bite from it, “Bite it deep and it’s very juicy,” she had said. I did. Then I discovered all the cousins had gathered in back of me for a good giggle. I knew then why they had been so eager to play in the woods. Nice essay, Steve!

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for sharing your own personal experience with an out-of-the-ordinary fruit, Norma. It would be interesting to know what fruit your friends had you eat. My guess, based on your description, would be Mayapple. I’ve never eaten them before, but I expect they must be quite sour.

  6. Debi Potts says:

    Wow,
    Steve you are not going to believe this but i made Persimmon pudding for the very first time this year, the man i am a care giver to,his mom has a tree and gave me the recipe for it. i had never heard of it .i have made lots of Persimmon cookies , and as i was making it i thought boy i hope my family likes this and they loved it. so i do plan on making it again next year when the Persimmons are ripe and cookies to of course. great story.

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for posting a resonance to my website, Debi! It’s good to know that you too have tasted the “fruit of the gods”! It definitely is an Indiana delicacy and I’m sure your Potts ancestors knew it well. I hope you can visit the site often. I should be posting a few new essays in early May. Steve

  7. Jill Weber says:

    Steve,
    It was such a pleasure to speak with you and Mary Ann this week at the Lawrence County Tourism office. We absolutely love your persimmon story and will post it during persimmon season! With your permission, of course. I can’t wait to read the rest, especially about your grandmother. I love “outside the box” people, they give life vibrancy! As do you. Thank you for your generosity of spirit in sharing these writings with the rest of us mortals.
    Hope to see you again, very soon!
    Peace,
    Jill Spurgeon Weber

    • steverobert says:

      Wow,Jill, you are a quick reader! It was a delight to speak with you at the tourism office this morning–and to discover our common links to Jackson County. I trust that you will find a good resonance with my essays, and especially with the ones related to our common southern Indiana homelands. And yes, i expect you will find a kindred spirit when you read about my grandmother’s 1911 adventure.

      I’ll look forward to connecting with you again sometime. I’m sure we’ll be back to Mitchell again and will be sure to stop by the tourism office again. :-). Take care, Jill, and thanks again for reading my writings.

    • steverobert says:

      Jill, I had meant to say in my earlier reply that I would consider it an honor to have my “Stalking Wild Persimmons” essay associated with your Persimmon Festival efforts. I hope to make it down to Mitchell sometime when the festival is underway–perhaps this year will be my time. 🙂 With ALL the best for you and your work!

      • Jill Weber says:

        I hope you can come back to Mitchell, too! The Persimmon Festival is Sept. 22-29, 2012. The Annual Candlelight Tour of Spring Mill State Park’s Pioneer Village is Sept. 22nd, from 4-9 PM. Walk the village, see period interpreters, enjoy live music, food, and fresh, home-made persimmon pudding out in the clear, crisp Midwest fall! Again, thank you. Peace, Jill

      • steverobert says:

        The Candlelight Tour sounds wonderful, Jill. We’ll set our sights on being back to Mitchell in time for that. 🙂

  8. yee haw that will be a sweet persimmon pudding. have you ever tasted paw-paws? I have, once a long time ago. The indians used to eat them. Must be an acquired taste…. and have you read The Hoosier Schoolmaster and The Hoosier Schoolboy by Eggleston? Another Indiana author of mine ins Gene Stratton Porter. love the book Girl of the Limberlost and sequel, Freckles. enjoying reading your essays.

    • steverobert says:

      And in more recent times, one can’t go wrong with any of the essays by Scott Russell Sanders. I’m currently reading from his “In Limestone Country.” Good writing.

      I’m pleased that you are enjoying my essays, Judith. I live in Minnesota now and writing about Indiana is one way I can stay connected with my “homeland.”. I’ve never eaten Paw-Paws, but my Grandmother Christine, who is a central figure in some o my essays, used to do so. But I think she is the only one in our family who ever “acquired a taste” for them.

      Thanks for reading my work. 🙂

  9. Eden Fadzo says:

    Hi Steve,
    Thanks for such a beautiful written, informative and heartfelt essay! I too love persimmons whenever I can eat them at the appropriate level of ripeness 😉 I came across your essay in a google search on “the spiritual significance of persimmons.” We are contemplating naming our child persimmon if she is a girl. Your writing helped me better understand the history of the fruit. I am also surprised that there is an American variety! Great work.

    • steverobert says:

      Thank you for reading my persimmons essay, Eden. I love the idea of naming your child after the “fruit of the gods.” I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone named Persimmon before, but it would certainly identify her as very special and unique child, which she is! 🙂 I would be interested in knowing more about the spiritual significance of persimmons, so please don’t hesitate to make a future post here sharing some of your conclusions.

  10. Jill says:

    Dear Steve,
    I am a native of southern Indiana but have lived in Minnesota for 30 years. For years, I longed for the smell of Persimmon Pudding baking in my grandmother’s oven. If you’ve tasted this special treat you understand the obsession. In the last years, I have been determined to get persimmon pulp so I could once again experience this holiday staple! Until this year, I had yet to get it successfully shipped followed by having the recipe work out. Finally success! Yesterday, I took some to work to train these Minnesotans in on all things persimmon. Your essay truly captures the experiences shared by those of us who grew up eating this at the holidays. I’m so jealous of your oil painting! Thanks for sharing your persimmon obsession. I’m not sure my coworkers truly understood how fortunate they were to be eating persimmon pudding but they did all like it, of course 🙂

    • steverobert says:

      I expect, Jill, that if your Minnesota friends are like my Minnesota friends, some of our fondness for things persimmon will be lost on them. I’m not sure that persimmons even grow at the U of MN arboretum! But it is a delight to make your acquaintance through my persimmon essay and to know that there is another transplanted southern Indiana native living in the Gopher State. 🙂

  11. Cindy says:

    I just had a taste of my first persimmon though it was a fuyu and not the southern one I would have preferred it was still good and I do have a bit of a dry mouth after eating it that tells me that it wasn’t quite ripe but still good!

    • steverobert says:

      As a friend of mine once said, Cindy, “Close, but no cigar.” I’m afraid the Asian persimmon is a far cry from the native Indiana one–ripe or not. I suggest you get yourself down to Mitchell, Indiana, in late September next fall when they are holding their annual Persimmon Festival. You’ll get plenty of the real thing there. The Inn at nearby Spring Mill State Park also serves persimmon pudding pretty much year round. Good luck! 🙂

  12. Cindy says:

    I wonder if I can find someone to ship me some?

    • steverobert says:

      The pulp has to be shipped frozen, but you might be able to get it that way. I suggest you look up a place called APPLE ACRES, which is located just north of Mitchell. Here’s an address and phone contact I found on the internet:

      APPLE ACRES INC
      9104 State Road 37
      Bedford, Indiana 47421
      (812) 279-9721

      They sell frozen native persimmon pulp there and they may have a way of shipping it to you. Good luck, Cindy.

  13. Cindy says:

    Do you know of anyone that ships the pudding already made?

    • steverobert says:

      Not that I know of, Cindy. Plus, the freshly-baked pudding is when it tastes best! I recommend you go for the pulp and bake your own. I think my grandmother’s pudding recipe is in the essay so you could use that. 🙂

  14. Cindy says:

    Thats what I will do then, thank you for all your help

  15. Annie Isaac says:

    Steve, I just came across your web site due to a post from a lady from Shoals, Indiana . . my home town. I have not been back there since 1973 but I remember it well; still miss the rolling hills, beautiful trees and meadows . . . and the persimmon pudding my grandmother used to make. Since I am elderly and live in AZ now, I think I will not get back there again but I will always remember. Thanks for such a great article 🙂

    • steverobert says:

      Thank you for responding to my “Stalking Wild Persimmons” essay, Annie. It is amazing how foods (and especially tastes and smells) can elicit memories for us from long ago. I’m glad you have found my WordPress site and I invite you to “graze” over some of the other essays. There are several that consider topics based in Indiana, which you might appreciate. If you have further resonances to my writings, I would love to hear them from you. Thanks for reading.

  16. Michael says:

    i have a ? or something like it. i can not tell the difference between a persimmon seed and a
    pawpaw seed because i found some in some raccoon poo 2 years ago so i saved the seeds
    and of course washed them off very well and so i saved them for 3 years after and started to grow two of um also for me their hard to grow the tap root was white and black the soil temp was not hot enough so they died. but im willing to retry growing them i no longer have any of the seeds but may know were to get some for free maybe the seeds were brown and flat.

    • steverobert says:

      I’ve never tried to grow persimmon trees from seed, Michael, so I’m afraid I can’t help you much. I’ve only used them to forecast the winter weather. 🙂 Brown and flat would match the description for persimmon seeds that I’ve known–and ripe persimmon fruit certainly is a favorite of raccoons, so that matches too. You might try contacting your local State Extension office and see what they might know about growing persimmon trees from seed–and, of course, there’s always the internet. Good luck.

  17. Michael says:

    for got to say im in Bloomington,Indiana

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