Winter Lights

Luminous, sweet persimmons are first among fruits in Mitchell, Indiana.

Laurie Smith

For many Americans, the persimmon is a curiosity, one of those little-known fruits that sit ornamentally on the supermarket shelf yet rarely make it into the shopping basket. But in Mitchell, Indiana, a small town set amid limestone hills about eighty miles south of Indianapolis, it's a different story. People here are crazy for the fruit—and not the large, juicy, commonly available oriental variety, either, but the native American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), which is not much bigger than a walnut and which grows on literally thousands of trees in and around the town. (The native persimmon's range stretches from Pennsylvania to Florida and west to Illinois.)

Every fall for the past 54 years, as the persimmons begin ripening around them, the people of Mitchell have thrown a festival to honor their favorite fruit. And the persimmon pudding contest, which caps the celebration, is the culinary event of the year.

Most of the pudding contestants, as I learned when I visited Mitchell in persimmon season not long ago, have a secret—and it's not necessarily their pudding recipe; usually, it's the location of their favorite trees. I even overheard one of the festival's organizers tell a friend, over a persimmon ice cream cone, "My wife would be very unhappy if she knew I'd mentioned that she'd gone out to her parents' property to gather persimmons." Every tree is thought to produce persimmons with a unique quality. Lee Purlee, a Mitchell High School math teacher, won this year's contest using pulp she'd had in her freezer since 1998; it came from a tree in her backyard that has since died. "The fruit on it had a sweet taste, and the pulp was sort of translucent, not thick and gritty like some," she reminisces. When the tree expired, says Purlee, "we went into mourning for a couple of days."

The first person I called on when I arrived in Mitchell was Dymple Green, the town's unofficial persimmon queen. Green, a former bookkeeper who has worn her hair in the same bouffant style since she and her husband, Vernon, began processing persimmon pulp and freezing it for local sale 32 years ago, knows more about native American persimmons than just about anyone else in town.

"In order to make sure the persimmons are ripe, you have to pick them up off the ground," she explained (that is, they have to be mature enough to have fallen on their own). "Otherwise they'll be puckery." In fact, when I drove up to the Greens' house, Vernon, a retired wallboard production supervisor, was painstakingly collecting fallen persimmons from under the trees surrounding their tidy white farmhouse—dressed in painter's disposable coveralls, since native persimmons stain anything they touch. Vernon processes the persimmons by feeding them through an electric mill in an immaculate workroom, formerly their son's pony stable. The resulting pulp is frozen in one-pound lots and sold under the label Dymple's Delight. But the pulp isn't sold in grocery stores; you buy it directly from the Greens—just knock on their back door.

As we left the room, I noticed an autographed picture of former vice president Dan Quayle, an Indiana native, smiling down from above a large freezer. "He was very polite," recalled Dymple. "He wrote us a darling thank-you note for a case of persimmon pulp."

Dymple, a woman with decidedly heightened domestic urges (cooking, baking, weaving, knitting), told me how persimmon trees grow. "You have your male and female trees, and they cross-pollinate by way of the wind or by bees." As she led me through their grove of planted trees (300 near the house, in addition to the ones that grow wild elsewhere on the property), Dymple explained that a male tree can cross-pollinate any female tree within a mile radius. The flower, a thumbnail-size, greenish-yellow bloom resembling a tulip, gives way to a fruit that is rarely larger than a plum and ranges in color from pale orange to a deep brick red. While still on the tree, the fruit looks like a tiny, pale jack-o'-lantern and is tremendously, unpleasantly acidic and astringent (it's high in tannic acid). But when dead ripe, even mushy, it tastes delicious, like a cross between an apricot and a date. It's also rich in vitamins A and C. Unlike the generally seedless oriental persimmon, the native is packed with as many as eight large seeds. It begins ripening in Mitchell in mid-September, at least a month earlier than the oriental varieties, which are grown mainly in California.

In her kitchen, Dymple set out a dark, shiny pudding baked in a Pyrex dish, along with a huge tub of Cool Whip. (Whipped cream, ice cream, and hard sauce are also acceptable toppings, but not at the contest; there, nothing may obscure the pudding's surface.) "I run a stick of butter over the top to give it a real nice sheen," she said in a pleased way, licking her fingers. I asked for a corner piece. It tasted sweet and slightly smoky and had a pleasantly gritty texture resembling that of super-sugary fudge. Dymple has never competed in the contest, though; as a past long-term chairman of the event, she told me, she's never felt that it would be appropriate.

The Mitchell Persimmon Festival grew out of the pudding contest, which in turn started as a town get-together. In 1946, George Bishop, principal at Mitchell High School, invited the community to the school's an-
nual fall festival, which included a potluck dinner. So many people brought persimmon puddings to the dinner that a friendly rivalry developed, and by the following year a contest had been born.

If you go to the festival these days, you'll find booths—staffed by members of church groups, women's sororities, and the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs—all along Main Street, offering deep-fried onions, corn dogs, real lemonade, homemade persimmon ice cream, and, naturally, persimmon pudding. And you'll see rows of neat houses with, yes, white picket fences—and a few persimmon trees (most folks plant theirs in the backyard). Over the course of the week, you'll have a chance to take in beauty pageants, parades, carnival rides, bingo games, country crafts, a display from the quilting club in the town library, and a pancake breakfast. But the pudding contest remains the festivities' raison d'etre.

On Saturday morning, anxious bakers bring their four-inch squares of pudding, each on a small white paper plate, to be judged by an anonymous, out-of-town team, headed for the 25th year in a row by Gale Briscoe, a Mitchell resident. Each contestant gives a name and address in exchange for a number that is taped to the plastic wrap covering the pudding. While the stakes are not high—the grand prize is $200—suspense soars as the afternoon fades into evening.

At 2 p.m., the parade begins, a stream of color and energy: floats hung with papier-mache persimmons, bands, capering clowns. Meanwhile, the judges are busily evaluating puddings. They look for consistency of color and a silky texture, and they prefer their puddings free of spices, nuts, and raisins—just pure fruit. And then, after the parade, they mount the stage and announce the winners. Eva Powell, a retired elementary-school librarian, who won the contest in 1977, 1994, 1996, 1997, and 1999—but not 2000—says she's always used the same recipe. "If I'm winning with it, I don't want to change it," she told me. "But this year, I just don't think my pulp was as good."

Ruby Hawk, the ebullient 1995 winner, works in the Burris Elementary School cafeteria. Her prize entry met all requirements: it looked perfect and tasted like persimmons. "In 1994," said Hawk, "my late husband was bedfast and couldn't make it when I won third prize, but he was so supportive and proud of me that I took my $50 prize and bought him a dozen long-stemmed red roses." When she was awarded the blue ribbon, Hawk was so thrilled that she burst into tears. "All I could think was, I wish my husband were here," she told me. "But I knew he was looking down on me."