Georgann Eubanks: The Imperfect Persimmon

The Month of Their Ripening by Georgann EubanksToday we welcome a guest post by Georgann Eubanks, author of The Month of Their Ripening:  North Carolina Heritage Foods through the Year, published this fall by UNC Press.

Telling the stories of twelve North Carolina heritage foods, each matched to the month of its peak readiness for eating, The Month of Their Ripening takes readers on a flavorful journey across the state. Georgann Eubanks begins in January with the most ephemeral of southern ingredients—snow—to witness Tar Heels making ice cream. In March, she takes a midnight canoe ride on the Trent River in search of shad, a bony fish with a savory history. In November, she visits a Chatham County sawmill where the possums are always first into the persimmon trees.

The Month of Their Ripening is available in both print and ebook editions.

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The Imperfect Persimmon

Native persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are ripening across North Carolina right now. Best not to pick them but to spread a bedsheet under the tree and shake the limbs. Those that drop are likely ripe. The fruit will look bruised and roughed up–the more so the better.

A bowl of ripe persimmons

A bowl of ripe persimmons

It’s a common misconception to assume that these trees need a good frost for the fruit to ripen. The timing depends much more on the site, sun, and moisture during the season, I’m told by Gene Stafford, host of the upcoming Colfax Persimmon Festival to be held on Saturday, November 3rd at the historic Stafford Farm on the west side of Greensboro. Details on the 11th annual event are available at: colfaxpersimmonfest.com. Stafford says this year’s crop, which he harvests from a number of sites in the area, is very good.

Florida foodie and forager Richard Campbell explains the value of this underappreciated fruit: “The American persimmon is a relic of our horticultural past that has thrived on its imperfections. They provide context to our lives and are a constant in a world of change and uncertainty.”

Indeed, and persimmons are the subject of chapter 11 (November) in my new book, The Month of Their Ripening: North Carolina Heritage Foods Through the Year. The name persimmon is an anglicized version of the Algonquin word for these small, sweet orbs that once provided a welcome source of nourishment as winter threatened the indigenous people of our region. They prized persimmon pulp for making breads, soups, and beverages. African Americans and European settlers later came to use them to create puddings, cakes, and dried fruit leather in the days of subsistence farming.

People today may shy from persimmons, having heard the truth that biting into an unripe one is a horrible experience. Others, having seen the fruit in its wounded but ripened state also may find it unappealing. Further, because our native persimmons don’t travel as well as their much larger, Asian cousins that are available in the grocery, many people have never even tasted this subtle delicacy, both cultivated and in the wild.

Nevertheless, persimmon pudding persists, though it has diminished as a Thanksgiving tradition. According to my informal research, the pudding is mostly made by families in the Piedmont region. In western North Carolina, hunters historically counted on persimmon trees to attract wild game; namely, the possum and deer that fed on the fruit come cold weather and which, in turn, provided meat for mountain tables.  In eastern North Carolina, farming families were more likely to set their hogs loose to feed under their persimmon trees rather than to make a dessert with the fallen fruit.

A persimmon pudding

A persimmon pudding

But somehow in the middle of the state, in a broad swath running from roughly Surry County south to Mecklenburg, persimmon pudding recipes are still being swapped among local cooks. Variations on ingredients may include sweet potatoes, maple syrup, white or brown sugar or both, buttermilk or heavy cream, sometimes coconut, and the sorts of spices associated with pumpkin and sweet potato pies—nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger.

The depth of the batter in the baking dish will determine whether your pudding has the consistency of a brownie, or deeper, something more like pudding. Donna Campbell, the documentary producer and seasoned Southern cook who took the photos in my book, insists that generous dollops of whipped cream are essential as a topping, no matter how deep or shallow the pudding.

A few restaurants around the state occasionally put persimmons on the menu.  Just a couple of weeks ago I tasted a perfectly paired persimmon gravy with smoked turkey at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Cary. The Greensboro franchise of the eatery also serves this dish in addition to a bread pudding dessert topped with persimmon hard sauce. Check it out if you want to taste test without securing your own fruit.

However, if you are curious about persimmons and want to buy some pulp without shaking a tree and removing the seeds, come to the Colfax festival on November 3rd.  There will be cakes, pies, puddings, persimmon wine, and frozen pulp available in quantity, along with jewelry, arts, crafts, historic demonstrations, live music, and a celebration of bygone rural life. Admission is free for ages 11 and under and $10 for those 12 and older. I’ll be there signing books and visiting with readers in the afternoon.

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Georgann Eubanks is a writer, Emmy-winning documentarian, and popular speaker. She is the author of Literary Trails of Eastern North Carolina, Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont, and Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains.  You can read her earlier UNC Press Blog posts here.  For more information, visit her website, www.georganneubanks.net.