Squish. Squish. Squish.
"What is that?" I asked my friend while we were out walking last fall. We looked down and saw fermenting fruits caked on the soles of our sneakers and then noticed the marble-sized orange fruits hanging like Christmas ornaments on the bent branches of a tall tree. "I think they're persimmons," I said. "And, I think they're edible."
Having recently discovered figs, lamb's quarters and other local delectables, I was anxious to try persimmons. Too anxious, apparently, because I didn't know what every child who grows up in these parts (I didn't) seems to know. "You pluck a persimmon and pop it in your mouth. Your whole mouth puckers up so you can barely open it. And then you do it again, and again, and again, because that's what kids do," explained Tim Young, a homesteader in Elberton, Georgia, who grew up in the North Georgia mountains. "Or, you dare someone to eat one that's clearly not ripe. Now, that's torture!"
I ignorantly plucked one that day, before knowing this. It separated from the calyx, or remains of the flower, easily. I brought it home, washed it and popped it in my mouth, expecting a quick trip to Nirvana like when I tried my first fig. But, let me tell you, when they say "pucker," they don't mean pucker as in sucking a lime. They mean pucker as in your entire mouth blows up, tongue and all, you reach for the Benadryl[R], and you grip the phone in your hands, your finger poised on the 9 of 911! Yet, the next persimmon I ate (there was a next one, believe it or not) was fully ripe, and it tasted like the sweetest orange ice pop ever. "Ahhhh," I said to myself. "That's why people eat these."
The type of persimmon tree I found is officially known as Diospyrus virginiana, or native persimmon. It's a big, towering type of tree that grows from Connecticut to Florida. Native Americans (the word "persimmon" is believed to come from Algonquin dialects used by Cree and Delaware nations) and colonists ate them for their sweetness, but also because they provided a ready source of dried fruit and nutrition through the long winter. Native persimmon trees provide shade and color throughout the year, are relatively pest-free, and the fruits are among the very last harvest in late fall, after the first frost. (It's best, by the way, to wait until the fruits fall to the ground to eat them). Today, the hard, ebony-colored wood of the persimmon tree is most commonly used to make...