Persimmons: The Underrated Golden Globes Foragers Treasure In Fall

Plump, pulpy, astringent yet sweet, this lesser-known fall fruit stars in puddings, cakes, and plenty of midwestern family legends.
Illustration by Claire Harrup

OF ALL THE signs that autumn has finally arrived in the lower Midwest, few are as certain as when the persimmons begin to fall. Squishy, wrinkled, and blushing a pale peachy orange, these fruits, technically berries, look as though they’ve been dropped from alien spaceships, topped as they are with little spiked crowns. And their flavor is unlike any other: rich, honey-kissed, and just a touch meaty, like a cross between apricot and pumpkin.

When I was a boy, my great-aunt, an inveterate observer of the seasons, would march us out to the tree at the edge of her property on crisp days after the first frost, leaves crunching underfoot, to gather them up in a bucket or our shirttails. But she wasn’t so much interested in eating them as she was in what they could tell us about the coming season. Like flocks of migrating geese or bushy woolly worms, the pits of persimmons, when dried, somehow knew whether the winter months would be snowy, subzero, or mild, depending on whether the shadow inside the split seeds resembled a spoon, a knife, or a fork. We always believed it, though we never kept records to see if the predictions held true.

I guess that’s why, years later, whenever I see blocks of persimmon pulp in the freezer at a local country market, I always grab a couple. I only remember my grandmother making persimmon pudding—the crown jewel of persimmon cookery—one time, but I loved it, while my family thought it an odd arrival to the holiday table, at least in comparison to brownies or my mother’s famous pecan pie. To me, they spoke of something ancient or native to home, and they had stories. I had grown up with all of the legends and jokes. You can’t pick them off the tree, you have to beat the birds to them when they fall, and you can’t eat them in any stage before they’re soft and perfectly ripe. Green persimmons contain so much tannin, they’ll make you sick. “Want to trick some kids?” my dad used to ask, his eyes smiling. “Tell them to eat some unripe persimmons. They won’t stop puckering for days.”

Persimmons grow in a wide swath across the Eastern United States, as well as throughout California and Asia, though those varieties are a completely different story. But the soils of Central and southwestern Indiana, especially near Mitchell, Indiana, where perhaps the only persimmon festival in the country is held every September, are especially shallow, rich in limestone, and well-drained. The summers are particularly hot and humid, perfect for producing quality persimmons. So sweet and prized are Indiana Uplands persimmon varieties, such as John Rick and Early Golden, that Indiana University geography professor Daniel Knudson, along with IU–Indianapolis geographer Jeff Wilson and researchers from universities in Palermo and Catania, Italy, have proposed granting local persimmons the status of a “geographical indication commodity,” similar to Bordeaux wine or prosciutto di Parma.

So, the next time you see persimmon pulp at places like Bloomington’s Dillman Farm or Tuttle Orchards in Greenfield, buy some for winter baking. Recipes for persimmon pudding, which is more a dense custard, abound on the internet. You’ll also find instructions for everything from fudge to cookies, to muffins, and a recently viral recipe for Lucille Ball’s persimmon cake, dressed up with raisins, orange peel, and just about every spice in your cupboard. The pulp is versatile, and it substitutes well in recipes calling for sweet potatoes or applesauce. But they’re more special than that, as many Hoosiers know. They’re ours, if only for a few weeks out of the year.