Persimmons are native to North America, and grew in the poorest of soils making them much appreciated by natives and European settlers alike. They were used in a variety of ways, some of which we’ll touch on here as I continue to explore foods that were available at Ft. Toulouse between the years 1717 and 1760.
The persimmon was described as growing wild, “about as large as the biggest Orleans plum, of a bright scarlet colour, with four or five very hard seeds in each, nearly of the size and shape of those of tamarinds, and the pulp of the fruit, when perfectly ripe, is of a sharp, but luscious sweetness”.
Fermented drink was important to the Europeans and probably the natives in the area.
In some places, where apples and cyder are scarce, the inhabitants gather the persimmons, after they are perfectly ripe, knead them into a kind of dough, or paste, with wheat bran, which they form into loaves, and bake in ovens: of these they brew a fermented liquor, which is called persimmon beer. This serves for their common drink, and is tolerably pleasant and wholesome. It is sometimes, though rarely, distilled into brandy. – Smyth, John Ferdinand Dalziel. A Tour in the United States of America. 1784. London.
The French in Louisiana were well acquainted with persimmons which they called Placminier. “When it is quite ripe the natives make bread of it, which they keep from year to year…The natives, in order to make this bread squeeze the fruit over fine sieves to separate the pulp from the skin and the kernels. Of this pulp, which is like paste or thick pap, they make cakes about a foot and a half long, a foot broad, and a finger’s breadth in thickness: these they dry in an oven, upon gridirons, or else in the sun: which last method of drying gives a greater relish to the bread. This is one of their articles of traffick with the French”. – du Pratz, Le Page. The History of Louisiana. 1774. London.
Joel Harris included persimmon bread in a list of colonial foods that were revived in the south during the shortages of the Civil War. On the Plantation: A Story of a Georgia Boy’s Adventures. 1919. NY
As with many foods of earlier centuries, persimmons were inexpensive, free, in fact, but labor intensive to prepare. Martha McCulloch-Williams noted one needed, “the patience of Job to free the pulp properly from skin and seed”. I have found the best way to do that is to bring them to a simmer in just enough water to keep them from sticking to the pot and allowing them to simmer for 10 or 15 minutes before putting them through a colander to separate the pulp from the seeds and skins. – Dishes and Beverages of the Old South. 1913. NY.
Now that we’ve documented their use by both natives and French and briefly discussed how to extract the pulp from the seeds and skins, let’s look at what we can do with that pulp.
PERSIMMON PUDDING: The Rural Carolinian. Oct. 1871. Pick over, rejecting the unripe ones. Force through a sieve in order to separate from the seeds. Add a little sugar and flavor to your taste. Place in pans and bake quickly. When done, grate some loaf sugar over them and put back to brown.
PERSIMMON CAKE: Proceedings. American Promological Soc. 1914. 1 cup persimmon pulp, ½ cup sugar, 1 egg, butter the size of a walnut, 1 c. of flour, 1 tsp. baking powder, ½ teaspoon soda. Bake 40 minutes in a moderate oven. For a soft pudding, leave out the egg. For a custard leave out the flour and baking powder.
PERSIMMON BREAD. 1 cup persimmon pulp, 1 cup water, ½ teaspoon soda, yeast, shortening, flour to make a stiff dough. Set to raise, mould, and bake as other bread.
PERSIMMON PUDDING. 1 pint pulp, 1 cup sugar, 1 quart of sweet milk, 3 teacups flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 teaspoons baking powder. Bake in a moderately hot oven for an hour, or until it is nicely browned. Cool and serve with whipped cream. The fruit used for this purpose should be of superior quality and perfectly ripe before using. – Troop, James. The American Persimmon. April 1896. Lafayette, Ind.
PERSIMMON JAM. Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book. 1857. Do not gather persimmons till late in the fall, when they are well sweetened with the frost. They are unfit to eat till all the leaves are off the trees, and till they are ripe enough to mash. Then pack them in jars with plenty of brown sugar. Maple sugar will do. In the back-woods they will be valued. When cooked they will be improved by the addition of a little sweet cider.