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Green pawpaws are rock hard and bitter. Overripe ones disintegrate into a kind of sticky compost. Pawpaws are exactly right—and great for a few days—when they resemble old, bad bananas in color and consistency. In this condition pawpaws are difficult to transport and ugly to look at, which is why they are seldom items of commerce. But every right-minded possum, raccoon, fox and squirrel in the neighborhood, as well as a great array of birds and insects, as well as we foragers, knows when pawpaws are ripe and admires them. Thus there is considerable urgency in getting to the trees before the beasts have stripped them. Immediate sensual rewards aside, making the right pawpaw connection gives a satisfying, attuned-with-the-world feeling of being in exactly the right place at precisely the right time.
Like winning football quarterbacks, successful foragers tend to take what is given them—that is, they are opportunists rather than grand strategists. But toward the end of that remarkable year, I decided to force matters, to search intentionally for something I had not had in a long time but remembered from the St. Joe River days as being worthy—persimmons.
The persimmon tree, like the pawpaw, is essentially a tropical species (related to the Asiatic ebonies) and probably never was common in the central Pennsylvania mountains. It is increasingly rare now because many of the larger trees have been cut, the fine-grained wood being useful for certain kinds of cabinet-making. Naturally, those who know the whereabouts of surviving trees are chary about passing the information on to those who do not. But late last fall, after some traipsing and trespassing, we came upon a grove of four substantial and bountiful trees. They were on land owned by a congenial octogenarian who said he had been happily feeding in this grove for 70 years and at this time of life did not mind sharing, moderately, with serious-minded colleagues.
As with pawpaws, getting persimmon fruit at the right time is critical. A green persimmon (actually yellow) is astringent beyond belief, puckering the mouth like no lemon or pickle ever invented. They are dead ripe when they are about the color of badly frozen apples and the consistency (as well as shape and size) of stewed prunes. Persimmons being very slow ripeners, this seldom occurs until Thanksgiving or later. They will continue hanging on bare, leafless limbs until they are knocked off by winter winds and blizzards. Persimmons, therefore, are among the very last of the season's forage.
After one has found properly ripened persimmons, one first eats a few handfuls. Persimmons are sometimes called sugarplum trees, which may give you an idea of their taste. The second thing to do is pick up or pry out of the frozen ground all the windfall and get them back to the kitchen immediately. Mash them and strain out the seeds and skins. Get at least two cups of the pulp. Mix up� of a pound of butter with two cups of honey and three jiggers of maple syrup. Someplace else mix four cups of flour, four eggs and a tablespoon of baking soda. Then put those two batches together and add the two cups of persimmon pulp and a cup or so of wild walnut or hickory nut meats. Stir some more. Put the batter in greased cake pans and bake for an hour, or until ready, at about 325�. When it goes into the oven the batter is orange, taking its color from the persimmon pulp. While baking, it turns a deep, rich chocolate color. It also turns magnificent, the finished loaves being a bit stiffer than pudding, much juicier than any cake and, I think any reasonable glutton would agree, better than both. In a year of exceptionally keen competition, what with sulderade and all those oyster mushrooms, Persimmon Delight was the best of all. The loaves can be frozen and the Delight judiciously and therapeutically spread out through the dark winter.
There is something else that can and will be said about foraging. I will approach it by analogy. The recognized function of a photo album is to serve as an aid to nostalgia. A loaf of Persimmon Delight can perform much the same function, although it works on the mind through the taste buds rather than by means of the optic nerves. In it is the taste of December persimmons, October walnuts, August honey and March maple. It does not taste like these months or seasons any more than a flat photographic print of, say, a bride really looks like a bride. However, the tastes are indelibly associated with phenomena that cannot be reproduced, inasmuch as they occurred in the past and will never reoccur in the same way—certain peculiar conditions of sun and snow, sensations of fire and beesting, how daughters and boyfriends once sounded and looked in summer fields. We seldom think of them as having that function, but our gustative and tactile faculties stimulate recall in very subtle and moving ways.
Also, of course, something like Persimmon Delight permits you to have your memories and eat them, too.