Eating the Past: Indiana Mitchell Persimmon Festival
Hello, this is Tammy Proctor, and as we wind down our tribute to food in these United States, it is time for Indiana's famous Persimmon Festival.
Next weekend, people will flock to the small town of Mitchell just south of Bloomington for this event. I first encountered the town years ago while visiting the working grist mill and historic village at Spring Mill State Park, just outside of Mitchell.
The area is wooded and lush, and one crop it is known for is persimmons. These are wild North American persimmons, so don't be fooled by the Asian varietals you see in stores.
The Asian versions are harder, shaped a bit more like a tomato and taste different. Indiana persimmons look like a peach/orange colored plum and when ripe, they are extremely juicy and sweet.
Persimmons have long been a staple food for humans and animals in the eastern United States and Midwest, partly because they are at their height in the fall and early winter. They are able to withstand first frost, and some argue that is when they are at their best.
You will know if they are ripe by squeezing them (they should be kind of squishy) or taking a bite. An unripe persimmon will make your mouth pucker — they are very astringent. Ripe ones, however, have a uniquely sweet flavor akin to the one-of-a-kind taste of a ripe mango.
Persimmons have a fun history as natural indicators. Just as some look to the groundhog for end-of-winter predictions, old-timers in the Midwest claim that the inside of a persimmon seed will predict a coming winter's harshness.
According to the farmer's almanac, you can crack open a persimmon seed and look at the shape at its center. The shape resembles a fork, a spoon, or a knife, and each of these indicates winter weather. For the fork, expect a mild winter; for the spoon, you know you will be shoveling snow. The knife suggests a cold cold winter that "cuts like a knife".
In North Carolina, there is even a semi-official "persimmon lady" who makes weather predictions each year for the farmer's almanac!
But back to Indiana. The Mitchell Persimmon Festival has turned into a big event with vendors, live performances, a parade, and of course, a cooking contest. The main food produced for prizes is a dish called persimmon pudding, which is the stuff of closely-guarded family secret recipes.
One of these prize-winning recipes was published in the Indianapolis Star. It's basically a fruit cobbler but with a lot of persimmon pulp to flavor the dish. Once baked, it can be cut into squares and enjoyed.
Utah is not known for its persimmon trees, but the plant is hardy in zones 4-9, so one could plant them in the west. Remember that these trees are dioecious, so you do need to get a pair of trees (male and female) in order to get fruit.
The Virginia Department of Forestry sells native trees, including the persimmon, in the fall, so check their online store for persimmon trees and a lot of others.
If you do manage to get your hands on some fresh persimmons, you might try slicing up ripe ones and adding them to your yogurt or acai bowls, putting them on top salads as you would other fruit, or even adding them to cocktails or mocktails – think of a peach Bellini, but with persimmon instead.
In any case, try to seek these out in the fall if you find yourself east of the Mississippi.