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Persimmons- Sweet!

IUKA, Ill. -- Penny Helm came out of the kitchen at Penny's Cafe, wiped her hands, then bearhugged ''The Rabbi'' last Sunday.

Jim Williams is many things, but Rabbi- He's more a country preacher from southern Illinois, one sent north by the United Methodist Church a decade ago to our church.

We were back home on his turf, the small towns and countryside of Downstate. Our goal was picking persimmons. The side goal for Jim and his wife, Debbie, was showing me Penny's, the kind of throwback small-town diner they know I love.

Mounted deer, largemouth bass, ring-necked pheasants, varmints and wild turkey, deer folk art, glossy ceramic wood ducks and a wood-and-glass knickknack case of shells and bullets packed the walls of the dining area. The sign outside had a fanciful drawing of two 10-point bucks sandwiching ''The Buck Stops Here.''

When Jim had the church in Iuka, he worked with Helm on community youth programs. He's not sure why she calls him ''The Rabbi.'' He introduced me to her, and she gave me a look, then said, ''Down here, it's meat and taters.''

She said ''taters.'' The specials listed one side dish as taters and gravy, alongside cole slaw (the creamy kind), pickled beets, green beans, fries, side salad and pork and beans. Three sides and white bread came with the meals on a platter. Specials were meatloaf and fried chicken. It felt like home.

When Helm found out we were looking for persimmons, she explained how she divined the winter from persimmon seeds. At first I thought she was giving me the country business.

She explained that you split persimmon seeds open, then check the design. The accepted meanings- A knife means a cold winter (cutting cold), a spoon means big snow (shoveling) and fork means a mild winter.

The important part is not the actual meaning of the designs. That's poppycock of the highest order. What's important is paying enough attention to the minutiae of the outdoors to notice cutlery designs in the seeds of picked persimmons.

That's outside-connected enough to notice.

You have to be properly connected to pick persimmons, too.

Not ripe, and your mouth puckers into human prunage. Wait too long for them to ripen and fall, and deer, wild turkey and natural decomposing will usurp the precious fruit.

Jim called 10 days ago and said we needed to go before the forecast big winds blew all the fruit down, so we went last Sunday after church. We reached Marion County in about three hours, in time to eat at Penny's -- far enough from any interstate to survive as the old-style restaurant it is -- before the 2 p.m. close.

Then it was picking. Our timing was perfect. You want to pick persimmons, a small fruit the size of a table-tennis ball, when they're ripe enough to fall or pick them up just after they have fallen.

Why persimmons-

For the connection as much as anything. And for persimmon pudding, a ridiculously decadent dessert, especially when topped with a scoop of whipped cream.

Debbie found the first one. Then all three of us quickly filled buckets. When picking off lower branches or the ground slowed, Jim and I put our shoulders into shaking the trees and made it rain ripe persimmons.

In two hours, we filled two buckets each, enough for 10 gallons of them.

Walking back to the Williams' SUV, Jim stopped to pick up one last persimmon.

It was time.

On the way home, he took the back way, going north on Illinois 37 and U.S. 45 through small towns with small churches he remembered before reconnecting to I-57 at Effingham.

Next is cutting the tops off the persimmons with my wife, then mashing them through a tri-stand metal strainer with a pestle. The mash is frozen for later use as pudding, ice-cream flavoring or fudge.

To remember the sweetness outside.