Preston's Orchard and the magic of persimmons
by Office Number1Sons
October 14, 2020
One of the little joys of life right now is taking my dog down streets that I rarely see. Lemon (that’s the dog) and I used to be all business on our walks, taking the same loop every morning and evening, stopping by the dog park if it didn’t look too muddy or crowded. But now that there’s much less variety to be had out in the world, I’ve taken to meandering through the neighborhood, picking new side streets, taking my time. This is how I learned that one neighbor of mine has an old Street Fighter arcade game on his patio, and another neighbor has one TV stacked on top of another to watch twice as much football on Sundays, and that there’s a persimmon tree not three blocks away from my house that’s just about ready to give those lucky enough to notice a bounty of jewel-toned, delicious fruit.
What’s most striking about this tree is the note that’s hanging off of it. You would expect that a tree in the middle of a DC neighborhood might bear warning: hey buddy, mine mine mine. But that’s not what’s written; instead, there’s an encouraging instruction to wait until the fruit is ripe to pick—these are the astringent variety, and will taste awful if eaten too early—and a picture letting passersby know what the fruit should look like when they’re ready. I’m just at the point in my life where I’m starting to feel old and sappy, but hell, it was moving to see that. I’m reminded of Ross Gay’s poem about a fig tree: “the city they / say is a lonely / place until yes.”
(As for Lemon, she didn’t care)
Bill and Seth at the orchard
Behind every fruit tree is a story, whether that story is one of nature doing its nature-y business, spreading seeds around by wing or hoof or gullet, or one of intention: our mothers and fathers planting something that will nourish us for years to come. Orchards are a kind of generational magic, putting years of hard work, sometimes stretching back decades, into something bright and delicious that fits in the palm of the hand. If you live in the DC metro, this magic is largely erased; so much of our food comes to us about as far removed from people and land as could be. Sometimes we get a little glimpse of it, though, like I did when I saw those persimmons ripening in Bloomingdale.
Getting to see the food you eat as connected to community and the land it lives on is a special thing. That’s what happened for Sophie and Seth, the owners of Preston’s Orchard, when they met Bill Preston a decade ago at the Takoma Park farmers market.
Bill Preston wrote the book on persimmons. That isn’t euphemism—Where Persimmon Was King documents P.H. Dorsett’s journey through persimmon orchards in China and is based on a series of photographs Preston inherited when the USDA was clearing out some records. Bill gained his enthusiasm for persimmons from his friend and coworker Eugene Griffith, who made his own journeys through Asia in the 1930s and 40s. His lifelong interest in the fruit, coupled with his expertise, eventually turned into Preston’s Persimmon Patch, the only orchard growing Gwang Yang persimmons in the Eastern US.
Bill considered himself an advocate for persimmons—a regular Johnny Persimmonseed—and he sold his harvest every fall in the Takoma Park Farmers Market. The Gwang Yang persimmon is a non-astringent variety (that means no tannins; Gwang Yangs are tasty even when still firm), and Bill believed it was the single best variety for this region. He’d arrive at the market with his harvest in big buckets, telling anyone who would listen about this perfect, delicious fruit. Unsurprisingly, they listened, and Bill didn’t need to advertise; every October, people eagerly awaited the arrival of Bill’s persimmons.
The market is where Sophie and Seth met Bill, and they developed a years-long friendship centered around his orchard. Persimmons were a natural touchstone for the couple: Sophie spent a year in Japan when she was young and remembers how much she loved the persimmons that were common in Japanese markets, and Seth had a persimmon tree in his yard growing up in South Carolina. Their love for persimmons grew out of their friendship with Bill, and when he retired, the couple knew they wanted to continue his legacy.
Seth and Sophie at the Takoma Park market
On the phone, Sophie and Seth are warm, thoughtful people whose love for Bill and his orchard comes through. Sophie is all energy as she tells their story, and Seth has a wry wit; their shared excitement is infectious, and within moments I find myself rooting for them as they tell me about their experiences with Bill and now with running the orchard. When they purchased the land, Bill imparted his research and his decades of experience along with his blessing. He passed away last year, but his life’s work goes on: Sophie and Seth have renamed the land Preston’s Orchard to honor their friend, and their third harvest is about to begin.
There’s something about persimmons. Maybe it’s the look of them—squat like a tomato, with a leafy crown and a muted orange sheen that reminds me of terra cotta. Or it might be that they’re relatively rare in the US, so I only get to taste them a few weeks out of the year, right when fall is really starting to percolate and the leaves are at their full flame. Maybe it’s the honeyed flavor that’s hard to pin down—a little bit of bit peach, a little bit apricot, a little bit something altogether its own. I don’t know what it is, and I’m no poet, so I’m hesitant to make proclamations about fruit anyhow, but I know persimmons are special.
People have shared this opinion for a long time. The botanical name, diospyros (“divine fruit”), gives it away. Persimmons are sometimes given for luck, and common folklore is that the shape of a cross-section of persimmon will let you predict the winter, which sounds at least a little more accurate than relying on rodents. They’re hardy plants and don’t need much upkeep through the year, but harvest is a busy affair. In early fall, Sophie and Seth put out the call to friends and family to work the ladders and buckets, and the orchard that spends most of the year as tranquil rows of trees suddenly becomes very, very hectic. But it’s worth it, both for the delicious fruit and for the opportunity to share Bill’s legacy with the next generation, spreading the love that he put into the ground for us.
When I ask Sophie what she likes to do with persimmons, she says it plain: “Anything you can do with a peach, you can do with a persimmon.” It’s fitting; persimmons are one of the last fruits of the season, and one of the joys of them is the way they bring to mind those late-summer flavors while still conjuring up the fall. I think about what my fiancée’s plum tart will taste like with persimmons instead of plums, and I’m suddenly impatient. The persimmons need another week or two on the tree, I’m told, so I'm just going to have to wait. That’s the way of things when you pull back the veil of the grocery store's instant gratification and are reminded that all of our food comes from land, and weather, and trees, and the people who take the time to care.
Persimmons from Preston’s Orchard will be available for home delivery at Number 1 Sons as soon as next week. The trees will let us know.