This post has been coming for awhile, particularly considering persimmons aren’t even in season anymore. But if one were especially diligent, one would have a fair stockpile of persimmon jelly just languishing in the freezer. As luck would have it, persimmons freeze just beautifully, which is a good thing, because the ten or so pounds I pilfered from a neighborhood tree ripened so slowly, so painfully one-at-a-timely, that I was forced to scoop out the jiggling flesh and plop it into a tub until I’d accumulated enough to use. My resolve was rewarded: I now have a good two quarts of jelly socked away, enough to keep me in fragrant loaves for months.
The America persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) was used by indigenous people on the east coast in a similar way as the farmers who wrote the early recipes. They very likely taught early settlers how to use the astringent fruit in the first place. “[M]any people with fine trees in their possession are allowing the fruit to waste because they do not realize its value,” lamented a farmer’s bulletin in 1917, and that remains true nearly a century later. Back then, in areas where they grew wild, they were said to be best suited to “dogs, hogs and ‘possums.” That’s very possibly because early settlers didn’t wait until the orange fruits were fully ripe before tucking in. The name ‘persimmon’ comes from Powhatan word pessamin, meaning ‘dry fruit;’ anyone biting into an unripe persimmon gets a mouthful of tannin, turning one’s tongue into an asphalt roof tile.
Another reason persimmons may have had mixed reviews is that they require a fair amount of labor to be useful. Getting the pulp out of the skins and away from the seeds is quite a task, one requiring “the patience of Job,” according to cookbook author Martha McCulloch-Williams. Her 1913 classic Dishes & Beverages Of The Old South reflect the early pioneer use of persimmon as a wild foodstuff, good for little but brewing beer or as a substitute for pumpkin in bread recipes. But I think she’s wrong.
It was the American persimmon that was brought to Europe; de Soto was the first to describe it in 1539, and following his introduction dried persimmons were eaten all over Europe like figs. However, the Chinese had revered it for culinary uses long before Europeans set sail for the New World. It is the Chinese species D. kaki that grows in my neighborhood, the Japanese ‘Hachiya’ cultivar, specifically. Since the Asian ladies are my main competition for these strange fruits, I have to park my car beneath the tree and stand on top to reach the fruits those ladies couldn’t.
The recipe for this bread comes from James Beard, who received the recipe from “a dear friend from the Middle West,” who probably learned it from an early 20th-century farmer’s newsletter or a book of domestic economy. Persimmon bread recipes abound in these bulletins from about 1910-1920, but are curiously absent from cookbooks until David Liebovitz resurrected Beard’s recipe a few years ago. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, why not try an old recipe? Here’s one from the aforementioned farmer’s bulletin (USDA Farmer’s Bulletin #685, 1917). In this case, assume a “moderate oven” is one set to 350ºF.
Whichever you use, please do yourself a favor by enjoying it warm and sliced thick, smeared with sweet cream butter, and all year round.