Our homely, rich persimmon tree

It may not be attractive, but our tree will supply a tasty treat all winter long.

  • Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/FILE
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Soon, persimmon season will arrive once again. Then, long after Thanksgiving and Christmas have passed, the scent of cinnamon and cloves will continue to waft through our house, thanks to fresh pans of persimmon bread baking in the oven.

On dull, drab days of late winter, I will glance out the kitchen window from time to time and offer a nod of thanks to the source of this sublime feast, a homely persimmon tree standing beside the front yard drive.

Passersby must wonder why we have such an unassuming tree as part of our primary landscape. Our persimmon is a plain old thing, after all, and its presence so near the street violates an unwritten code of local landscaping.

Where we live in suburban southern Louisiana – and perhaps in other places, too – ornamental trees like sycamore and river birch typically grace the front yard, with fruit trees such as persimmons and figs planted more discreetly behind the house. Like domestic staff relegated to the kitchen rather than the parlor, fruit trees are apparently supposed to do their work for the family away from public view.

My only defense for the location of our persimmon is that I had nothing to do with it. Our tree was already setting out roots when we bought the place a dozen years ago – the handiwork, no doubt, of an unconventional herbalist who once lived there.

According to the neighborhood lore, the previous owner was an unrepentant tree lover. When she wasn't tending rows of mint and thyme for her herb business, as the story goes, she was hauling home just one more sapling to plant, adopting willows and elms the way some people sneak just one more kitten or puppy through the door.

With only a half-acre plot to accommodate her expanding arboretum, she was forced to be creative, which is why, we suppose, a persimmon tree became a headline of our property rather than a footnote.

Competing with a nearby sycamore for light, the persimmon never had an opportunity to grow broad and sure, maturing instead into a spindly trunk that, when loaded with fruit, reminds me of a bamboo fishing pole with too many bobs.

In the interest of decorum, I thought about cutting the tree down, but that would leave me without a steady supply of fruit for my mother-in-law Jo Alice's famous persimmon-bread recipe.

On entering the family, I fell in love with the dessert bread, a mix of persimmon pulp, raisins, spices, and flour that yields a dense, hearty cake just right with a strong cup of coffee.

And so, as our tree's apple-size fruit ripens to pumpkin-orange at the close of December, I grab a ladder and pick persimmons from the lower limbs, then use a pole-mounted lopper to snatch the rest of my quarry from the highest branches.

The result is an annual exercise in family vaudeville, as at least one of the hard-to-reach persimmons falls like Newton's apple and splats across my balding pate, sending pulp the color and consistency of apricot marmalade down my consternated face. The prospect of paternal humiliation is always enough to get our two young children away from the TV and into the yard to help with the harvest.

Licking the tart, tannin-tinged pulp from my cheeks, I'm reminded that persimmons can pucker the lips when eaten by themselves. But once cleaned and frozen in plastic bags, the pulp promises a steady supply of persimmon bread in the cold, cast-iron days between New Year's and spring.

The other day, when I jokingly told some new neighbors that our persimmon tree was the block's biggest eyesore, they seemed a little too quick to agree. I'll have to walk over with a fresh loaf of persimmon bread and try to win them over.

Jo Alice's Persimmon Bread

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup cooking oil

1-3/4 cups flour

2 eggs

1 teaspoon each of baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and cloves

1 cup puréed persimmon pulp

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup raisins, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cream together sugar, oil, and flour. Add eggs, one at a time. Beat mixture 1 minute between each egg. Stir in remaining ingredients. Grease and flour a small loaf pan. Add batter and bake for 30 minutes or until done.

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