Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois: Persimmons

Persimmons apparently have suffered a loss of popularity. They once were, after a few good frosts, a favorite delicacy for wandering boys and for hunters, particularly those who hunted possums at night. By combining the fruit of the Diospyros virginiani, the scientific name for the lowly persimmon, with turnips gleaned from an isolated patch or with apples found in the heavy grass beneath a rusty-coat tree at some deserted farmstead, the night hunter fared well. Persimmons also were a favorite food of the possum. Thus, both the hunter and the hunted were drawn towards the fruiting tree. Birds came by day to peck at the fruit, and flying insects came to suck the sugery juice. Pigs and sometimes dogs also ate them. In fact, they were popular with both men and beasts.

In addition to eating the fruit out of hand, other uses were made of it and of the wood of the tree. It was a practice of some to gather the fruit for making persimmon beer and for puddings. We thought both processes had entirely vanished, but several recipes for each have appeared recently.

Persimmons for making beer are best when gathered after they have fully ripened and are sugary. About a bushel will make a barrel of brew. The gathered fruit is placed in an open barrel and crushed in just enough water to make a thick mushy mixture. Clear water is added to make a total of about twenty-five gallons. A few brewers add new sorghum, saying that it makes a stronger beer. No addition is necessary, however, if wellripened and sugary persimmons are available.

A cup or so of kitchen yeast is added, and the contents of the barrel very thoroughly stirred. It is then left in a warm place to ferment. From time to time it is skimmed as conditions may indicate. After a period varying from a few days to three weeks or more, the mixture ceases to “work” and the amber-like liquid is drained off, placed in jugs and jars, and stored in a cool place.

Our single experience with the product left us of the opinion that the drink was mild and delicious and could be taken without getting the bad after effects of stronger drinks. The slight sampling that Ernie Robb and the writer took from his father’s stock is remembered pleasantly. No bad effects whatever are recalled.

Persimmons also are used in puddings, once a common dish in season. Perhaps persimmon pudding is making a comeback, since it has been found listed on the menu at two eating places this fall. Two recipes also have been received for making the pudding. One of them, which the lady giving it called a “receipt,” is given here.

Even though puddings are off the writer’s diet list, he tried one of the two persimmon puddings found in restaurants this fall. It was indeed really good.

The wood of the persimmon trees served a few particular uses. Excellent gluts for splitting fence rail were made from it, slowly dried by scorching beside an open fire, and then oiled. The wood also was used for making the queerly-shaped spool shuttles used by hand weavers. Occasionally one of these shuttles, worn glassy smooth by a million passes between the threads in an old loom, is found where it was stored a lifetime ago. Persimmon also was a favorite wood for the making of shoemakers’ lasts. Today the heads of many golf clubs are fashioned of it.

All uses for persimmon did not end here, however. If the seeds were opened in the proper manner (undetermined), a knife, fork, and spoon would be discernible and a wish made at this point would come true. A handful of the inner bark of the tree could be placed in a pint of water and boiled down to a half-pint. The addition of some sugar and a small lump of alum to the liquid converted it into a potent remedy for thrush, a sore mouth of children. The bark also could be chewed for a sore throat. Anyone trying either of these remedies should remember that the bark is most effective when peeled from the north side of the tree with an upward motion. However peeled, it doesn’t taste good.

“Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois” – John W. Allen

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