Last week I had two different bites that perfectly captured each side of my heritage. One was injera with shiro: spicy, spongy, tangy and warm, instantly making me feel surrounded by nosy and concerned Ethiopian women. On another day, a mouthful of dark brown, subtly spiced, steamed persimmon pudding: One bite and it was Christmas in my grandmother's sunny dining room in Marin County, California. This was the reliable, sweet pay-off after a day of presents and strained, suppressed family dramas. This was the WASP side of my family.
That recent taste was the first time I'd tasted persimmon pudding since my grandmother died. Steamed persimmon pudding is not something you see often on restaurant menus; in California, it remained in the domain of home cooks, passed on in community cookbooks and from homemaker to homemaker for most of the 20th century. And because the jelly-sweet Hachiya fruit that’s best for cooking with is ripe in November through December, in California, it’s a dessert that’s usually associated with holidays.
After my grandmother died, I pored through her cookbooks trying to find her recipe. I stumbled on a collection of clippings filed in her copy of San Francisco A La Carte, a Junior League Cookbook from 1979, but I had no idea which one was hers. Each was very similar to the next, but with flavorings on rotation (one had prominent vanilla, the next cinnamon, the next brandy or rum). Some suggested one teaspoon of booze, while Californian Nancy Reagan’s included three tablespoons. The recipe in San Francisco A La Carte one included a whole quarter cup of brandy, but was otherwise identical to what I remembered.
“I feel like all of my mom's friends had that particular San Francisco cookbook,” Margaret Zamos-Monteith, a writer from Santa Barbara, told me—her mother made that particular persimmon pudding recipe every Christmas Eve. It was the result of finally switching up her family’s English tradition of plum pudding to suit the needs of a prolific persimmon tree in the backyard.
I kept digging. I wanted to know how persimmon pudding was a part of my culture, if it fit in the same way injera does. I found a recipe in every Bay Area Junior League Cookbook from the 1980s.
There’s little literature about the Western WASPs, no Updike or Cheever doing any romanticizing. Joan Didion came closest to capturing the temperament, at times. So did Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist little-known outside the Bay Area. In his Guide to San Francisco (1957), he wrote the following on "How to Be a San Franciscan."
He dresses in dark, generally conservative clothes. He prefers streetcars to buses because he can run and jump onto the bottom step of a trolley, like the frustrated athlete he is. And when he drives to work, he'll park anywhere, being pretty haughty about traffic regulations.
Although generally he can take culture or leave it alone, he'll attend at least one opera during the season, as well as a symphony and even a ballet, because he was brought up to believe in those things. He likes dining in small, out-of-the-way restaurants (preferably in an alley) where he knows the waiters by their first names—and one of his greatest joys is "discovering" a good little restaurant his friends haven't heard of.
The West Coast WASP, in Caen’s mind, was preppy, athletic, and with little interest in culture—except for food. What some now call "foodies" is who many on the West Coast have always been, though less trendy and elaborate, more casual and resourceful. This has been the case for at least a century—the rite of passage for new Californians in the first half of the 20th century was learning how to eat an artichoke. It’s always been a coast defined by its produce.
In 1933, Palo Alto-based Sunset magazine put out the first edition of the Sunset All-Western Cook Book, by Genevieve Callahan, with the intention of introducing local fruits, vegetables, and fish to new residents. Even now, the recipes read as fresh, healthy, modern—like their avocado, grapefruit, and persimmon salad. And then there’s "Sunshine Fluff," a “sundae” of essentially sliced bananas mixed with pureed persimmon, topped with egg white-lightened whipped cream, crushed almonds, and a honeyed cherry. Was “Sunshine Fluff” my heritage?
It was here, in the persimmon section, where I found one of the earliest cookbook recipes for a California-style steamed persimmon pudding—the only earlier example I could find was a homemaker submission to The Los Angeles Times in 1916. Both recipes are almost identical, in method and proportions, to the one I remembered my grandmother making in the 1980s and 1990s.
Persimmon pudding has another home in the U.S.—it’s a state dish of Indiana, though theirs is quite different. It evolved from a Native American bread made from a type of persimmon fruit not found in California. The California pudding is made from the much larger Hachiya persimmon, and usually includes baking soda rather than baking powder—a slight change in chemistry that turns the color from deep orange to deep brown. The pudding native to Indiana is almost always baked in the oven in a casserole dish or deep pan—California’s is steamed.
Hachiya and other Japanese varieties of persimmon were first planted in the United States in the 1870s, but they flourished in the California climate. By 1919, there were more Japanese persimmons in California than any other state. In California abundance, you use what’s there, so it makes sense that cooks, like those in Margaret’s family, adapted the local ingredients to make a traditional English plum pudding with what they had on hand. One of our most famous local home cooks was East Bay resident Marion Cunningham, who included a very good version of persimmon pudding in her Breakfast Book, rightly suggesting that it's very good the morning after it’s already been served as dessert. Both Harold McGee and Ruth Reichl mentioned first hearing about this dish from Cunningham. (Apparently, she would give out the steamed puddings, which stay moist, as Christmas gifts.)
After all this digging, I had more of a sense of a world I’ve always felt slightly alienated from, save for the food. But I wasn’t that much closer to finding confirmation of exactly what recipe my grandmother used—where the taste I remembered from childhood came from.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one looking: My aunt had asked my grandmother this very question in the 1990s—she'd had the foresight to ask her before her Alzheimer’s took hold. Immediately after, she sent me scans of two handwritten recipes: one from a neighbor, and one from a cookbook from the Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary to the Stanford Children's Hospital. According to her, my grandmother combined the two.
There’s still some mystery—I know how I’d combine the recipes, but how did she?—but I’d found that mysterious flavor that was so hard to recall: She used lemon juice, vanilla, brandy and cinnamon, like her own version berbere, the Ethiopian spice blend.
Other than that, her ingredients and method were exactly the same as that 1916 recipe. The answer to my search had been laughably close, not in books, but in conversations and handwritten recipes—where so many cultures’ history lies.
California Persimmon Pudding
Steamed Persimmon Pudding
- 3 very ripe Hachiya persimmons* [see note below]
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 cup butter (softened)
- 1 1/4 cups sugar (or to taste, adjusted according to sweetness of fruit and accompanying sauces)
- 2 lightly beaten eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 tablespoon brandy (adjust to taste, up to 3 tablespoons)
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 cup flour
- 1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 1 cup raisins
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch (disolved in water)
- 2/3 cup water
- 2/3 cup orange juice
- 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons butter