Judging from the recent spate of articles on the topic, there's an awakening going on regarding the mass extinction of heirloom apples. These articles chronicle the many unique and once-beloved antique apples, and their role in the botany of desire and original sin and the ways in which apples convey a sense of place, apples that go beyond the macintosh. According to Slow Food USA, of the 14,000 apple varieties once grown in the US, only about 1,500 remain. And of those, only a dozen appear in our grocery stores. While the thousands of lost and rare apple varieties are emblematic of America's devolution from a once-ebullient apple-diverse society, we suffer an impoverishment that we mostly don't realize. And apples aren't the only old-time fruits we've lost.
We modern day pilgrims ransacking the foodshed know that we should be eating things that great-grandmother would have recognized. With more than 60,000 different products in the average grocery store, it seems odd that real diversity, genetic diversity, is so scarce. Most stores have more choices of mayonnaise than apples. What was it like in earlier (simpler?) times, when it was still possible to find the Shiawassee Beauty or Nonesuch apple, developed in Oakland County, and that my great-grandparents doubtless enjoyed? What other apples did they love, and what else did they eat that I will never taste?
A new Slow Food publication, "Place Based Foods at Risk in the Great Lakes," catalogs the native and traditional food varieties of the Great Lakes that our grandparents knew but that we are in imminent danger of losing. Among these are the American chestnut, pawpaw, and persimmon - all native to Michigan (though perhaps at the edge of their range) and which I know most of us have never tasted or even seen.
Probably the main reason most of us have never tried these foods is that they are so seasonal and perishable that they don't appear in grocery stores. And they barely appear at the farmers markets. They ripen in the fall, from September to November, and when they come they come in an avalanche (albeit a tiny avalanche at the moment) and don't last long without some kind of intervention. As a result, delicious as they are, they have become as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth and you have to be persistent if you want to taste them. I've been pestering Mary Wolfe about her chestnuts for a year now.
The bristle-covered chestnut doesn't look very promising, but that prickly exterior hides a soft heart. According to grower Mary Wolfe, the spiny coat hides 2-4 chestnuts inside and she has to "fight the deer for them" when they fall just before the first frost. Chestnuts have a fairly permeable shell that can easily be pierced by a knife. Indeed, you have to score chestnuts to roast them, or risk a minor explosion. If you don't cook them soon, chestnuts mold easily and dry out quickly. You have to either use them right away or tuck them in the freezer until you're ready to make your marrons glacés or an old-fashioned Chestnut Stuffing for your turkey.
And how do they taste? The crumbly white flesh of a chestnut is sweet and nutty, and when roasted takes on a savory carmelized quality. Chestnuts are starchy, almost like a potato. In many places of the world chestnuts have long been considered "poor man's food" because they could be harvested in large amounts and ground into flour when other crops failed.
Chestnut blight, an Asian bark fungus, wiped out more than 4 billion trees in the U.S. starting early in the 1900s after it was first noticed at the Bronx Zoo. After 40 years the American trees, having never developed resistance to the disease, were almost completely done in. Before the blight, 1 in 4 forest trees in the US was a chestnut. But by now most of us have never seen a mighty chestnut tree, and if we've eaten a chestnut it's probably been in Europe or Asia. There are few single remnant American chestnut trees still living. Among the trees still standing, a grove in Michigan, reputed to be from 600-800 large trees, is unique in the country.
Chestnuts are making a comeback in Michigan. Mary Wolfe, of Wolfe Orchards near Tipton has 2 bearing chestnut trees (though she doesn't think they are American chestnuts) and brings the fruits to the Ann Arbor market when they drop in the fall. A chestnut cooperative based in Saginaw, Chestnut Growers, Inc., sells chestnuts online and also hosts chestnut roasting events, including Saturday December 5th at Detroit's Eastern Market. Winkel Chestnut Farms in Coopersville, MI has U-pick chestnuts, starting in September. In addition, the Michigan Nut Growers Association meets 3 times each year to share information and scions - including those of the chestnut.
Another forgotten American fruit was recently expounded upon by none other than Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's. He describes pawpaws, the American Fruit You've Never Tasted in a recent Atlantic article, saying "paw paw trees grow from about 10 to 20 feet in height. They have long dark green, sort of droopy-eared leaves. In fact they're the largest edible fruit that grows in North America; the biggest paw paw ever recorded was 18 inches across. They look a bit like a mango, I guess, but in pear green-colored flesh. The fruits are ripe when their skin gets a bit darker and the perfume is more pronounced."
Pawpaws are also known as the: "False banana, pawpaw apple, custard apple, custard banana, poor man’s banana, banana tree, Indiana banana, Nebraska banana, Hoosier banana, Michigan banana, and as the white plum." You get a sense that there is something banana-y and custard-y in there and that the white plum is just there to throw you off.
In the olde-timey cookbooks the only pawpaw reference I could find was for making preserves in Miss Parloa's New Cookbook of 1882. She says "The large white plums must be skinned by using boiling water, as for peaches, then throwing them into cold water. For one pound of fruit allow half a pound of sugar, and half a pint of water for three pounds of sugar. Cook but few at a time, and take them out carefully. Fill up the jar with hot syrup."
According to the Christian Science Monitor: "The forgotten pawpaw was first spread throughout the mid-Atlantic and westward by native Americans as a source of nutrition as the nomadic tribes pursued wild game, historians say."
A fruit tree nursery website says: "The fruit, which is the largest edible fruit native to America, is high in amino acids. The Iroquois used the mashed fruit to make small cakes that were dried and stored. The dried cakes were soaked in water and cooked to make a sauce or relish that was served with corn bread. Raw and cooked fruits were dried by the sun or on a fire. These were stored for use in the future or taken on hunts. The Cherokee used the inner bark to make cordage. By twisting the bark, they made string and strong ropes."
Apparently the president of the Michigan Nut Growers Association is an Ann Arbor resident and is reputed to have a pawpaw patch somewhere on the east side of town. Although I haven't spoken to him yet, I was lucky enough to get a couple of his pawpaws, ripe from the tree, from a friend. The taste was like a combination of mango, pineapple and banana, and the texture was almost as creamy as an avocado. It was eye-rolling delicious. I understand from my go-between friend that there is help needed with maintaining the pawpaws. I'm looking forward to finding out what that means, and hoping also to get a couple of trees for the front yard.
"Plumbs there are of 3 sorts. The red and white are like our hedge plumbs: but the other, which they call Putchamins, grow as high as a Palmeta. The fruit is like a medler; it is first greene, then yellow, and red when it is ripe: if it be not ripe it will drawe a mans mouth awrie with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock."
-- Captain John Smith, 1612
Third and final in my triumvirate of the forgotten fruits of fall in Michigan is the American persimmon. Tantre Farm has been selling persimmons at the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market for the past couple of weeks now. You can see from the photos that a perfect ripe persimmon has blotchy, baggy skin and looks like it's been sitting around just a little too long. But as Thomas Hariot said in 1893, "they are lushious sweet." They are sweet like honey, with a kind of light floral, almost melon-y note, and some not unpleasant astringency coming from the tissue-thin skin.
The persimmon tree is valued for its wood (it's a member of the ebony family) as well as for its sweet orange date-like fruit that ripens in the autumn. The persimmon fruit is said to be the largest berry of any American plant and is eaten only after it falls to the ground when perfectly ripe. The persimmon is hardy from zones 5-9 and its natural range in the southeast includes more than half the states of the US, from New York to Texas.
From Persimmon Pudding: In 1896, W.R. Gerard notes: "PERSIMMON (Diospyros Virginiana).-This name, from the time of the earliest settlers, has been variously spelled:pushemin, pichamin, pessemmin, putchamin, puchamine, parsemena, persimena, pissmien, putchimon, pitchumon, phishimon, persimon, possimon, pishamin, parsimmon and persimmon. The last-mentioned orthography, the one now adopted, was first used in 1669 by Shrigley. As stated under the word Chinquapin, the suffix men means 'fruit'. "
Old recipes put persimmon in everything from cakes and puddings, to cookies, candy, pies and beverages. Because the high sugar content made it prone to fermenting, one popular beverage was persimmon beer.
Martha McCulloch-Williams in Dishes and Beverages of the Old South, 1912, says that Persimmon Beer is "The poor relation of champagne-with the advantage that nobody is ever the worse for drinking it. To make it, take full-ripe persimmons, the juicier the better, free them of stalks and calyxes, then mash thoroughly, and add enough wheat bran or middlings to make a stiffish dough. Form the dough into thin, flat cakes, which bake crisp in a slow oven..." these cakes are crumbled and soaked in water, and Williams goes on to describe the process and pitfalls of persimmon fermentation.
In describing a variation on pumpkin bread Martha McCulloch-Williams says "Folks curious as to older cookery can even make persimmon bread using the pulp of ripe persimmons, but they will need the patience of Job to free the pulp properly from skin and seed."
Whatever else has changed since then, the difficulty of separating seed from pulp of the persimmon has remained the same. Recommended techniques include using a honey extractor, a laundry bag, or a colander to separate the sweet flesh from the flat, ovoid seeds. I understand that in Indiana it is possible to buy the prepared pulp in many places from small producers and that Indiana remains the center of persimmon culture with a Persimmon Festival in Mitchell , IN each September (the 64th annual is coming up).
Persimmon Pudding says: "In recent times, persimmons have been forgotten across much of the tree's range. This has led to some localization of persimmon use. Some of this may be attributed to increasing urbanization. While asian persimmons may commonly be found in supermarkets, our native persimmons do not fare well in what passes as conventional commercialization of foodstuffs. Native persimmons have have been largely available only to those who make an effort to find it."
Seek and ye shall find. The window for finding the Michigan persimmon, pawpaw, and chestnut is brief; the 2 months after Labor Day and perhaps a little more. But these forgotten fruits, like our antique apples are definitely out there, waiting to be re-discovered. These fruits are true heirlooms, the tastes of an America we all imagine and perhaps our only remaining link to experiencing what the first people in this country experienced. It would be a shame to lose that. Sacrifices must be made - once again, we've got to eat them to save them.