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Embarrassment of Riches

The persimmon tragedy, a personal failure

By Gretchen Giles

After offering wide-leafed shade all summer, October signaled the trees' change, November confirmed it, and December now horribly forces it. One by one, the oversized greenery has dropped, revealing the brightening orange fruit hanging like nature's gaudiest ornaments. Living on a property blessed by (read: cursed by) the placement of several mature hachiya persimmon trees, the terrible overwhelm of produce has begun.

Before they drop to mush in the grass or are savaged by sharp beaks, the weight of having literally hundreds of fruits rapidly ripening outside each window is an intense annual food-guilt. What to do with them all? It's morally reprehensible to let such bounty just go to waste, and there don't seem to be enough interested birds to justify neglect. Friends quail when they see the inevitable paper bag full of "gifts" that we've so helpfully brought along, persimmons being the zucchini of autumn in their fecund rampancy.

Random help sometimes arrives when strangers, having seen the trees by the busy roadside fence, stop to beg some fruit. One regular even returns a month later with a bag of the stuff dried into chewy pieces. Masquerading as grand gentlepeople farmers, we expansively urge these visitors quickly up our broken wooden ladder to pick the limbs as clean as they can, briefly pretending that it's a hardship, that they are literally taking from our mouths, when the shameful truth is that we don't like the gummy gel of these hachiyas and secretly wish that whoever planted them decades ago could have foreseen today's crisp fuyu boom at trendy eateries.

To have such good fortune and to wish it otherwise is almost as wicked as to briefly dandle the thought that one's child should be more like, say, Bobby or Marie. The trees are healthy, they're a delightful refuge in summer's sharp heat, and their stark late-fall architecture, replete with all of those many (those very, very many) gorgeously blushing fruits, is an unvaryingly lovely daylight sight. Desperate home decoration finds bowls of persimmons adorning every table top, I lying to myself that I am just ripening them for some as-yet-undiscovered culinary miracle I will arise one unforeseen Sunday to enact. Meanwhile, they slowly curdle in their clutches of brass and straw and porcelain, and are eventually composted with stealth.

Such waste and ungratefulness must rapidly be squelched, and so this year we have kind of set about to repair our gustatory relationship with these trees. Kind of.

Persimmons are native to North America, but the two most commercially available varieties are Japanese. The round and pointy hachiya, which is most commonly referred to as being tomato-shaped but (and remember, I have to look at a lot of them) more closely resemble pert adolescent breasts, and the squat firm fuyu both flourish in the West and Southeast. Their botanical name diaspyros translates from the Greek as "food of the gods," and persimmons are rich in lore and legend.

Cherokee tradition places greed for the fruit as being why Turtle has an apparently mended broken shell pattern, having tussled with Wolf for the treat. Some weather fantasists insist that persimmon seed patterns arrange to predict winter's coming harshness. Jamestown settlers brewed the fruit up for a favored orange-lightning-type of alcoholic drink; the Buddhists have a parable about wisdom ripening into compassion as a persimmon mellows from tannic start to sweet pluckings; and in 1645, the Japanese word for the fruit, kaki, inspired a ceramicist to rename himself Kakiemon in its honor upon achieving a reverently colored glaze.

As if such poetics weren't enough, Israeli researcher Dr. Sheila Gorinstein published a 2001 article claiming that a persimmon a day far exceeds the adage-advantages of an apple a day, persimmons being not only an excellent source of vitamins C and A but also able defenders against the vein-clogging direness of atherosclerosis.

Reading online about a farm family's loving memory of Grandpa's favorite way to eat a ripe hachiya, which must be picked to soften until it is swooning in its skin, our household 13-year-old gamely agrees to freeze some for an attempt at fruit-truce with the storied comestible. This far-flung Grandpa of the Internet evidently enjoyed his hachiyas in South Carolina, eating them straight from the freezer like God's own sorbet.

And so after a day, Mr. Teen pulls his frozen globes out and lets them briefly soften. We cut off the pointy ends and he digs into one with a spoon. "It's," he pauses, "OK. It's, you know, kind of good." I take a spoonful and immediately spit the frozen gelatinous flesh into the sink with uncanny feminine grace. While undeniably sweet, the taste has the vaguely feral, thick, brown flavor of wildness that this white-sugar-ruined palate can't wash out quickly enough. We are back to "kind of" mighty fast.

At which point, of course, I begin to harass professional chefs.

Gracious even when an unannounced visitor knocks on his front door, Seaweed Cafe chef de cuisine Andre Fecteau happily kneads focaccia as a treat on his day off from the Bodega Bay restaurant. Hailing from eastern Long Island, Fecteau remembers that his uncle had a persimmon tree in the front yard but that no one dared touch its offerings. "Everyone just said, 'Look at the pretty orange fruit' and left it alone," he says, standing at his kitchen counter. "It's more of a California thing; the season there isn't long enough."

Since becoming a Californian himself, Fecteau has learned exactly how long that season can be. When working at the now-defunct San Francisco restaurant China Moon, he devised an unusual dipping sauce for spring rolls from the fruit. He looks briefly for the cookbook that sprang from his tenure there and then gives up, reciting the ingredients from memory.

"Take four fuyu persimmons," Fecteau directs, "about one teaspoon minced garlic, one tablespoon minced ginger, one small red serrano chile--or a red flame is good, too--about a half a cup of rice vinegar, and salt to taste. Purée it all in the Cuisinart, and then add some minced green onions for color." Sounds marvelous, but what about all the local bounty of the hachiya?

"It makes a good steamed pudding," he allows. "It's a custard with hachiya pulp, cinnamon, and allspice. Use a mold and cook it for a few hours in a water bath." I ungratefully note to myself that anything requiring a water bath sounds hard, wishing again that the ease of just sticking a piece of fruit in the freezer and returning to find Grandpa's sorbet had indeed proved the miracle. Yet zillions of recipes confirm that hachiya pulp can be sieved into batches and frozen, the sweet gunk secretly flavoring and adding moisture to many different kinds of quick breads, puddings, and even savory dishes.

Co-owner and chef with her husband Lucas of Sebastopol's K&L Bistro, Karen Martin happily calls persimmons "the herald of fall. I always use fuyus in salads, hachiyas for desserts, like making puddings. The fuyus have a lovely firm texture." Such fruit favoritism does nothing for the hachiya profusion I totter beneath, but Martin pleasantly gives the recipe for her fuyu persimmon and arugula salad, a favorite on the Bistro's fall menu.

"Take baby arugula," she recites, "toasted pecans, crumbled goat cheese--we use Laura Chenel's--persimmons sliced really thin on the mandolin, and pomegranate seeds to garnish." That's so simple!

"Yeah, well, the dressing is a little bit more complicated," she says, continuing. "Take the juice of two navel oranges reduced in a pan with a little white wine vinegar and a tablespoon of sugar. Cook until it's reduced to about two tablespoons. Let it cool. Add the juice of two Meyer lemons, salt and pepper to taste, whisk in a good, pure olive oil, and then finish with a little extra virgin olive oil." Saving the heavy flavor of the extra-virgin oil allows the clarity of the citrus to shine more brightly in this dressing.

Unconscionably self-obsessed, I wail, "Well, what would you do if you were me and had all of these hachiyas about?" Martin chuckles nicely and gamely begins the now-familiar purée-and-sieve-for-pulp explanation. Steamed pudding is bandied.

Grumpily, I cut her off. "They make a damned fine table setting."

"Absolutely!" she laughs brightly. "And I'd leave it that way. I hate making desserts."

Agreed. Kind of.

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From the December 18-24, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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