Persimmons

My first experience with persimmons was as a young lad about 9 or 10 years old. I remember visiting a cousin who lived in a small Texas Panhandle town when one of them approached me with a reddish-orange baseball-sized orb picked from a large tree in their back yard. When I asked what it was, they told me a persimmon; a deliciously sweet fruit that I should taste. So I took a big bite which I promptly spit out. “That’s disgusting,” I said. “It’s like eating a mouth full of sugar.” 

Laughing at my reaction, they told me that if I thought the ripe fruit was bad I should taste it when it’s green. “it’s so sour it’ll make your mouth pucker,” they said. With that knowledge I silently vowed never to eat another persimmon. And to this day, I’ve never broken that vow.

Wild persimmon trees existed in China more than ten thousand years ago. And although there are a number of persimmon varieties and cultivars worldwide, the predominate Asian cultivar is Diospyros kaki (aka D.kaki). This variety can be further divided into two groups, the “Hachiya” cultivar, which is so astringent that it is inedible until soft-ripe and the non-astringent “fugu” variety which can actually be eaten like an apple while the fruit is still green and firm. 

Persimmons (shi) were domesticated in China during the Qin and Han dynasties (221BC-220AD), with large-scale cultivation taking place during the Tang and Song periods (618-1279). The main production districts are the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, the sixth-longest river system in the world with an estimated length of 3,395 miles. In the Chinese culture persimmons are a symbol of good luck.

Introduced to Japan in the 7th century with cultivation beginning three centuries later, the persimmon (kaki) became so revered that it was named that country’s  national fruit. The persimmon is highly regarded by many prominent Japanese poets, so much so that it is the subject of and/or mentioned, in countless of their works.

American persimmons (Diospyros Virginiana) are part of the Ebony family. The trees, dating back to prehistoric times, are very hardy and can adapt to any number of weather and soil related issues. Growing to a height of 20-60 feet with glossy, leathery oblong leaves, bluish-green in color, turning yellow, orange and red in the fall.

In American the word persimmon actually comes from the Virginia Algonquian word putchamin or pessamin meaning “dried fruit.” Algonquian is the now extinct language of the Powhatan, a Native American tribe indigenous to Virginia. First documented in 1612 on Captain John Smith’s map of Virginia, use of the word persimmon grew until by the mid-1800s was used when referring to D, kaki cultivars as well. 

Persimmon trees are dioecious, meaning the fragrant male and female flowers are produced on separate trees with some rare exceptions. Male flowers are pink and grow in groups of three, whereas female flowers are creamy-white and solitary. Fruiting usually begins when the tree is about six years old and typically produces every two years thereafter.

The persimmon fruit matures in late fall to early winter, ranging in from glossy yellow-orange to dark red-orange in color. They are usually spherically or tomato shaped and about 3-inches in diameter, although size and shape can vary, depending on the species.

Persimmons were important to the lives of the Cherokee, Comanche, Seminole and other Native Americans. Not only did they incorporate the ripe fruit into their diets as cakes, breads and puddings, but also dried it for snacks and for winter and trail rations. Other parts of the plant were used as well for a wide variety of purposes—leaves steeped in hot water for a tea-like beverage; the bark chewed for indigestion; the astringency of the green fruit used as antiseptic for sore throats and hemorrhoids.  

And while the fruit has many popular culinary uses from pie to jam, the persimmon wood is equally desirable. Persimmon wood is among the hardest know to man. Valued by wood carvers for its beautiful grain patterns, and up until the end of the 20th century prized by manufacturers, like Calloway, to produce high quality golf club heads. Today persimmon wood, also known as white ebony, is used for some of the finest live-edge tops for dining and coffee tables, kitchen island and bar tops, and much more. But don’t go cutting down every tree you find in the wild with the thought of using the wood. Arborists say only century old trees produce commercially viable ebony wood.

Persimmon fruit, when ripe, is delicious eaten fresh. But they make wonderful pies, cakes, cookies, and breads. For those readers lucky enough to find ripe persimmons here is great recipe. I hope you’ll give it a try.

PERSIMMON SPICE COOKIES 

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup butter, unsalted, room temperature

1 egg

1 cup persimmon pulp

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped pecans

Cream together butter and both sugars. Add egg. Mix the baking soda with the pulp and add to creamed mixture. Sift together dry ingredients and add to mixture. Stir in nuts and raisins. Drop teaspoons of the batter on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes

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Yam or Sweet Potato?

My momma, like so many other Southern homemakers, made wonderful sweet potato pies. So good in fact, that I was in my teens before I knew that her pumpkin pies (one of my favorites) was actually made with sweet potatoes, not pumpkin. Later on for whatever the reason, she actually made pumpkin pies, and they were pretty damn good but I still liked the sweet potato version best.

The one thing my momma did not make was “yam” pies. In fact, I was a young man just entering the culinary world before I heard anyone use the word yam. Perhaps that was because we were pretty much country folks from Southeastern Oklahoma and not too savvy when it came to fancy culinary terms. I distinctly recall the first time I heard the word because the chef I was working under at the time used it when referring to a sweet potato dish we were preparing. That lead to a verbal altercation between him and our well-traveled Spanish sous we called Manny, who told him they were sweet potatoes, not yams. And as it turned out, Manny was right.

Did you know there’s a difference in yams and sweet potatoes? Well, there definitely is.

Yams

As it turns out almost all reddish-orange fleshed tubers eaten in the good ole’ US of A are sweet potatoes—not yams. In fact you nor anyone you know has likely ever seen a yam, much less eaten one.

Yams are monocots a member of the Dioscoreacea family, closely related to lillies and grasses. They are native primarily to Africa and Asia, although there are a few varieties grown in South America. There are over 600 known yam varieties with 95% of them from Africa. Yam tubers can grow to almost five feet in length and weigh up to 130 pounds. Even the word “yam” derives from the West African word “Unami,” “yam,” or “enzyme,” which means “to eat.” 

Yams have a thick, rough, scaly skin which is hard to peel. Their skin color may vary from dark brown to light pink. The vegetable’s meat can also vary in color from white to yellow, purple to pink. Yams have a mild earthy taste although drier and starchier than sweet potatoes, whose taste, as the name implies, is much sweeter. 

Sweet Potatoes 

The sweet potato on the other hand belongs to the morning glory family, Convolvulacea. And while its large, starchy, sweet tasting tuber is the popular prize, its young leaves and shoots are also edible. The long, tapered root has a smooth skin ranging in color from brown to yellow, to red, white, and purple. Its flesh can also be light beige to yellow, red-orange, orange, and purple, although the orange fleshed varieties Jewel and Beauregard are the most popular in this country.

Thought to have originated in Central or South America, the sweet potato was domesticated in the Americas more than 5,000 years ago. In Peru sweet potato remains have been found that date back to 8000 BC.

However, in the 1700s Captain Cook while on his exploration of the Polynesian islands  some 4,000 miles from South America discovered sweet potatoes being grown there. Later European explorers also discovered them throughout the Pacific from Hawaii to New Guinea. This brought up a question still unanswered today. How did the sweet potato get from South America to those Pacific islands?

The fact is, sweet potato ranks sixth as the world’s most valuable crops, after rice, wheat, potatoes, maize, and cassava. And it provides more nutrients per acre than any other staple. As it turns out sweet potatoes have helped sustain humans for centuries. There are about 6,500 sweet potato varieties cultivated in almost every major country in the world, including Australia, China, Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, and of course North and South America. The exception is Europe, which is not a big fan.

And while sweet potatoes are grown mostly for use as food, many people grow them for their beautiful ornamental value.

But how did the term “yam” become so synonymous with sweet potatoes in this country? Well it seems that a Louisiana researcher by the name of Julian Miller developed a new variety of sweet potato with creamier, less stringy flesh and a more tender skin. It was also higher in vitamin A that traditional sweet potatoes. As a marketing ploy to distinguish their new product, the Louisiana sweet potato industry used the term “yam.” This was undoubtably a successful campaign as the term has stuck in the minds of the American public. So much so that the USDA now requires the words “sweet potatoes” to be incorporated on all domestic yam labels in an effort to clear up the confusion.

Sweet potatoes have been an important part of the U.S. diet from its beginning, especially in the Southeastern part of the country. The per capita consumption of sweet potatoes was about 30 pounds prior to 1920, but due to our societies growing affluence and its connotation as a poor man’s food, consumption has dropped to about 4 pounds today.

In spite of its Latin origin, China is the world’s producer and consumer of the sweet potato, growing about 90 million tons annually. In our country, about 39% of sweet potato production comes from North Carolina, followed by California at 23%, Louisiana at 16% and Mississippi’s 19%.

Now that you know a little about the world of sweet potatoes and how nutritious they are, I hope you’ll enjoy one with your next steak instead of the same ole’ mundane russet potato you normally have.