Persimmons: How I Fell in Love with Fuyus
My husband and I were driving south from Sacramento down Highway 99 through California’s Central Valley, taking Grandma to Thanksgiving with the cousins in Los Angeles. It was a long drive through bare brown fields, and when we made a rest stop near Visalia we were delighted to see a farm stand. Its shelves were heaped with butternut squash and pumpkins, red and white pomegranates and some bright orange tangerine-shaped fruit. When I picked one up, it was smooth, hard, shiny.
“What are these?” I asked the lady.
“Persimmons,” she said.
“They’re not ripe yet,” I said, testing for softness. The persimmons I’d tasted had to be so ripe they were gooey or they were as astringent as the peel of a green banana.
“They’re ripe alright,” she told me firmly, whipping out a paring knife and cutting into one. “These are Fuyu persimmons. You eat them like an apple.” She offered me the paper plate of slices.
We tried them and agreed they were delicious and beautiful as well. They were shaped like tomatoes, some delicately lobed and others perfectly round. All were a brilliant crimson orange. Slice them horizontally and in the center was an eight-pointed star that might hold almond shaped seeds as brown and lustrous as a horse chestnut. The carrot colored flesh was crisp at first, a yielding crunch which then gave way to a marvelous sweetness, almost butterscotch. It went down easy and left you ready for more. I would later discover that as delicious as the fruit was when it first ripened, it became even more succulent as it matured.
I bought an enormous bag, and we snacked on them all the way to Bakersfield and over the mountains into LA. The ones that were left, we ate while we roasted the turkey and mashed the potatoes. And good as that Thanksgiving dinner was, the taste I remember is that of the Fuyus. On the way back we stopped and got more. There was something in the fruit that I craved with a passion, perhaps some nutrient missing from my diet, or maybe they simply embodied the taste of fall.
I was in love, and as is often the case, I longed to know everything about the object of my affection. So I discovered that the persimmon is the national fruit of Japan, although it originated in China. Over the centuries, various cultivars were developed, and popular history has it that the first Asian persimmons were brought back to Washington DC by Commodore Perry, after his forced opening of trade with Japan in 1854. Soon they were growing in California.
I learned to recognize the large flat oval leaves of persimmon trees, both Fuyu and the larger, acorn-shaped Hachiyas which grow abundantly in town and along the rural roads in Yolo County, California, where I live. I learned that they often bear fruit only every other year and benefit from careful thinning. I also discovered a family farm near me that specializes in exotic varieties like Maru or chocolate persimmons, and in peeling and drying whole persimmons using a traditional Japanese technique called hoshigaki.
There are native American persimmon varieties as well, growing both wild and under cultivation all over the Eastern seaboard and across the South and the Midwest all the way to Texas. Native people offered dried persimmons to the first Europeans visitors in what is now Virginia. These trees are either male or female, with only the females bearing fruit. Their fruit is high in tannin, which is the source of the dread astringent flavor, and must be so ripe that they are almost liquid before they can be eaten. American Persimmons are a favorite winter food for deer and other wildlife, since the fruit only matures after frost, and can be seen hanging from the bare branches of the trees after all the leaves have fallen.
No doubt wild creatures have contributed significantly to the persistence and spread of these trees in the wild. They are also appreciated by humans. Since 1946, Mitchell, Indiana has celebrated its annual Persimmon Festival, combining elements of county fair, beauty contest, carnival and bake-off in a week-long civic extravaganza. Every year a prize is given for the best persimmon pudding, and I’m sure it’s delicious, but I prefer to eat my persimmons raw.
Ten years ago, pomegranates were an obscure ethnic curiosity, but today they're widely available and sought after for their flavor, beauty and health properties. Perhaps someday the Fuyu, with its healthy dose of vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, will follow the pomegranates path. Until then, it will be my not very secret love, a brief annual passion that lasts from Halloween ‘til Christmas. Once the winter solstice has passed, so have the persimmons. They lose their autumnal firmness and melt into mush, no doubt to release their seeds for spring propagation. And at least one has succeeded in my front yard---a volunteer persimmon sapling growing among my roses. I hope it’s a Fuyu.