Wednesday, October 25, 2006

First frost

Fresh basil season is over. The first frost occurred a couple of nights ago and my ever-productive, never-failing basil plants are now big bushes of black, desiccated leaves. In the deep south, the first frost alters the sugars in collard and mustard greens, making them sweeter and easier to cook. Southerners who spend time in the woods associate first frost with the ripening of persimmons, but it's a disjunct association.

Persimmon trees, with their easily identifiable charcoal briquette-like bark (they remain one of the few trees I can identify in winter), are unjustly considered trash trees in southeast Missouri. Because raccoons and opossums eat persimmons more than people do, persimmon seeds are dispersed throughout the woods, on fencerows and in old fields. Persimmon trees are generally the first trees that show up in early successional woodlands. Leave an old field alone long enough and persimmon trees will shoot up above the goldenrods, asters and Johnson grass within the first year.

Diospyros virginiana, literally "fire colored fruit/wheat of the gods from Virginia," grows on average to 30-40 feet tall, but in southeast Missouri it averages 80-112 feet, sometimes towering over stately oaks and hickories. They are dioecious trees, which means they require male and female flowers to produce fruit. The fruit is 34% sugar, making it one of the sweetest native fruits in America. But bite into one before it's ripe and you'll never want to try one again. The astringency and bitterness of unripe persimmons can remind you of your younger sister rubbing deodorant on your braces during a sisterly fight.

The fruits ripen at the time when most animals are beginning to store fat for the winter. Unlike pawpaws, persimmons don't ripen all at once. On one tree, fruits can ripen as early as mid-September and as late as February. The lore that encourages waiting until the first frost is plain wrong. I waited until the after three successive nights of frost last year to pluck soft fruits from a laden tree only to be tricked again into a tongue-drying experience. Heavy frost damages the fruit, as does cooking the ripe pulp; heat brings back the astringency to ripe fruit. A lady in New Madrid makes excellent persimmon cookies. She waits until the fruits fall off the tree, often returning to the same tree for several days in a row to get the fruit before the animals do. She treats the persimmon pulp like pumpkin. While I don't think the fruit is pie-worthy, the cookies are great. Native Americans made a fruit "leather" out of persimmons; extract the pulp and spread it 1/4 inch thick over a log and let it dry (or put it on a cookie sheet in the oven with low heat for an hour). High in Vitamins C, A, E. Good source of fiber and trace minerals.

Native persimmons aren't available in produce aisles due to their fragility, but there are several Asian varieties that show up in select grocery stores in the fall. I don't think the Asian fruits are as fussy as the native ones, but being so far from a grocer, I'm going to try grabbing a few fruits before the raccoons get to them. The raccoons, with help from the opossums, managed to eat every single pawpaw in the county this year. I just want enough persimmons for a small batch of cookies and I'll throw the seeds to the fencerow.

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