This time of year, the quest for persimmons begins across their natural growing region, from up the East Coast down through the South and west to Texas. Where my mom grew up in Southern Indiana, the fruit is the stuff of nostalgic legend. Let’s be clear—these are not the firm, photogenic Fuyu Japanese persimmons you might see in gourmet grocery stores or trendy restaurants. No self-respecting home cook would dare use those to whip up a persimmon pudding. Sticky-sweet with just a hint of pucker, these wrinkly Ping Pong ball–sized counterparts drop off native trees when late summer gives way to fall.
Hoosiers celebrate their enduring fondness for the quirky delicacy each September in the little town of Mitchell, Indiana, about an hour northwest of Louisville, during a vibrant Persimmon Festival, now in its seventy-sixth year. And though it’s currently closed for renovations, the nearby Spring Mill Inn’s Millstone Dining Room typically offers a persimmon pudding dessert on the menu year-round. Rumor has it, you can even dry and split the seeds to portend the approaching winter season. A fork shape means mild weather ahead. A spoon predicts lots of snow to shovel, and a knife forecasts icy “cutting” winds.
Persimmons are finicky. You can’t pick them right off the tree. In fact, tradition dictates they’re only ready to gather after they’ve turned a ripe shade of dusky orange and fallen to the ground, feeling almost squishy. Finding a tree is the first hurdle; locations are guarded as closely as prized fishing holes and secret mushroom-hunting spots. My mom, Jan Mallett, would spend the better part of a day harvesting fruit from a friend’s yard, picking out the grass and twigs, then processing her yield through a trusty food mill.
That precious, labor-intensive pulp then made its way into a persimmon pudding recipe passed down from my grandmother. Imagine a dense, dark cross between pumpkin pie filling and moist gingerbread. Mom served it in scoops, sometimes with a pour-over of half-and-half, sometimes under a dollop of Cool Whip. I never cared for it much when I was growing up, but when I spotted a sign out front of an Indianapolis garden center advertising frozen pints of pulp last fall, something made me pull in and buy a couple.
My mom’s been gone for more than twenty years now, and I can’t recall eating persimmon pudding since I was a child, but I felt her with me in the kitchen as I mixed and baked the dish following instructions from a card in her own handwriting. Tempered by time and memory, the resulting batch turned out better than I ever remembered it tasting. I’m grateful for the sweet change of heart.