Following persimmon around the world

Jo Hunter-Adams

Jo is a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town, where she studies food, migration, and health.

Ten years ago, when we were still living in Boston, in the days before the large Korean supermarket chain, H Mart, made sourcing Korean produce a breeze, my mother-in-law brought a plate of orange something to our dining table, cut up and with enough toothpicks for each of us. I, not being a very adventurous eater, immediately broke out in a sweat. In those early years of marriage my Korean mother-in-law and I (South African), did not have much in common, culinarily speaking. I wondered what I could do to avoid eating this. Nothing. On the bright side, it seemed fruity and didn’t appear to have been fermented, which typically increased the range of unknown tastes almost exponentially. So I speared my piece, hoping for the best. My first experience of persimmon. It was sweet, soft, and melted away too quickly.

Before it reached us, this particular persimmon had been on a long journey. My mother-in-law had received a phone call from the post office to tell her that she had a package there, that it was leaky, smelly, and fairly disgusting, and could she please hurry and pick it up? Her friend had sent a special box of Korean persimmon from California (to keep this legal we won’t discuss where it came from before that). With Thanksgiving, the package had sat for a couple of days in the post office, enough for most of the persimmon to explode and leave the post office smelly and goopy. My mother-in-law retrieved the smelly package, and salvaged one or two of the fruit for a late Thanksgiving celebration. She explained the significance of persimmon as symbolic of fall and winter in Korea. In the years that have followed I have eaten many persimmon… dried, fresh, and frozen… Now the fruit evokes memories for me, too.

Fast forward five or so years: On our family’s move to Cape Town with our children, I was surprised to discover persimmon in the supermarket. What was more, they were very cheap! Nobody knew what they were, and you could tell. The supermarket told us they were healthy! Full of vitamins! Good for children! Desmond Tutu was even photographed and quoted as liking it. They had a campaign donating bags of the fruit to “underprivileged” children. In South Africa, persimmon had been rebranded as Sharon Fruit, because the variety hailed from Israel, as did the businessmen with the capital and the will to invest in developing South Africa’s very own persimmon industry.

The businessmen had seen an opportunity in the South African agricultural sector for growing out-of-season persimmon cheaply for the northern hemisphere. Although South Africans had no experience of growing or eating persimmon, the business partners proposed that land be developed for persimmon export, and it was done. The persimmon that I saw on the shelves were the leftovers: the persimmon that didn’t make the cut for the northern hemisphere market.

It was apparent that these were very different fruit from the ones I’d eaten in Korea. First there’d be a batch where all the fruit was as hard as potato, never to ripen. For those of you who know persimmon, you know this is a bad sign. Then, there’d be a batch that was splitting apart and impossible to consume quickly enough. They were usually almost giving them away at the supermarket, though gradually the price has increased as the fruit became more recognizable to customers. My sister was suspicious. “do they taste like tomatoes?”, she asked while we were grocery shopping together. “No” I said. “Well, they look like tomatoes.” She didn’t buy them.

As I inevitably join the ranks of those trying to grow their own food, I wanted to see if I could grow persimmon trees so that one day, my children could have a tangible multigenerational connection to this fruit. The persimmon could be one way of expressing our collective, multi-continental heritage. Right?

Easier said than done. I asked around at all the local and national nurseries about persimmon trees. I didn’t mind the variety, Hachiya and Fuyu are fine, I said, trying to show my knowledge and flexibility (acquired mainly from Wikipedia). No nursery knew what I was talking about. I finally found a South African online nursery who said on their website that they sold persimmon trees. But when I contacted them, they said they’d never been able to find stock, despite a demand as South Africans began to take an interest in growing their own fruit.

So I contacted the association of Sharon fruit growers in South Africa, that boasts that “our partners in Israel … have invested millions of rands to establish and built a state of the art packhouse and coldstore facility in Buffeljagsrivier”. They claim the fruit is “astringent and inedible in the orchard and the packhouse, thus making it unattractive to both animals and mankind.” What they are really saying is that in South Africa, growers grow fruit that will not taste good to animals, hungry people or would-be thieves. The expensive processing centre also becomes an essential step. The need to gas the fruit means that farmers must route their fruit through a single processing facility, leaving them entirely dependent on that facility. Given that they are being grown for markets in the Northern hemisphere, notably the U.S., they’ll also be gassed as they arrive, to make sure there aren’t any critters hitching a ride over. They’ll often be irradiated. And finally, they’ll make it to the shelves in time for the Northern hemisphere summer. So that rather than being reminiscent of Fall, a well-traveled, pale cousin of the persimmon of my mother-in-law’s memory will be available all-year-round to Northern Hemisphere customers.

I nevertheless asked the association if they could help me find a few trees. They responded with the problem stated on their website and experienced first hand with the variable quality of the fruit I’d eaten in our Cape Town supermarket: the fruit from their cultivar is inedible unless processed. I gave up on finding a grafted persimmon tree, and hoped that seed could grow true-to-type.

On our annual visits to my mother-in-law, now resettled in Korea, our family find her apartment surrounded by apricot, persimmon, Korean date and Gingko trees. Sadly, most of the fruit from these trees goes to waste. We occasionally happen upon elderly Korean ladies picking up gingko fruits and getting the nuts out, but people buy persimmon at the store, carefully packaged and shrink wrapped, despite the ripe, sweet fruit outside their apartments.

Nevertheless, the abundance of fruit presented me with my opportunity. My son and I looked odd scurrying around in the apartment-complex bushes with orange sticky hands. With a little effort, we had a bottle full of seeds. A year later, after various attempts at germination, we have two tiny persimmon trees: one Fuyu, one Hachiya.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology

One response to “Following persimmon around the world

  1. Bill Kinsey

    Jo, having grown up in the American south, one place where a species of persimmon is indigenous, I can explain both why persimmon is perceived as a fall/winter crop and why one so often finds bitter ones in shops. It was common knowledge among us as children that persimmons needed to be frosted before they lost their bitterness. Despite the appearance of appealing, ripe-looking fruit on the trees in late summer/early autumn, one never harvested any until there had been a hard frost. They were inedible. Now in Gauteng, where I am now, you’ll get the right kind of autumn/winter weather to make persimmons a worthwhile proposition. I commend your perseverance and wish you success.

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