PawpawIn Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit

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The largest edible fruit native to the United States tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango. It grows wild in twenty-six states, gracing Eastern forests each fall with sweet-smelling, tropical-flavored abundance. Historically, it fed and sustained Native Americans and European explorers, presidents, and enslaved African Americans, inspiring folk songs, poetry, and scores of place names from Georgia to Illinois. Its trees are an organic grower’s dream, requiring no pesticides or herbicides to thrive, and containing compounds that are among the most potent anticancer agents yet discovered.

So why have so few people heard of the pawpaw, much less tasted one? 

In Pawpaw, author Andrew Moore explores the past, present, and future of this unique fruit, traveling from the Ozarks to Monticello; canoeing the lower Mississippi in search of wild fruit; drinking pawpaw beer in Durham, North Carolina; tracking down lost cultivars in Appalachian hollers; and helping out during harvest season in a Maryland orchard. Along the way, he gathers pawpaw lore and knowledge not only from the plant breeders and horticulturists working to bring pawpaws into the mainstream (including Neal Peterson, known in pawpaw circles as the fruit’s own “Johnny Pawpawseed”), but also regular folks who remember eating them in the woods as kids, but haven’t had one in over fifty years.

As much as Pawpaw is a compendium of pawpaw knowledge, it also plumbs deeper questions about American foodways—how economic, biologic, and cultural forces combine, leading us to eat what we eat, and sometimes to ignore the incredible, delicious food growing all around us. If you haven’t yet eaten a pawpaw, this book won’t let you rest until you do. 

 

Andrew Moore grew up in Lake Wales, Florida, just south of the pawpaw’s native range. A writer and gardener, he now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the news editor and a feature writer for Pop City, a weekly news e-magazine in Pittsburgh, and his stories have been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Yonder, and the Biscayne Times. Pawpaw is his first book.

 

It was once celebrated by Native Americas, and  was held in high esteem  by the early settlers. Today pawpaw, the largest indigenous North American fruit is largely forgotten. Andrew Moore has taken it upon himself to look into the history and future of pawpapw, and talks to us about it. 

BAF: Have to ask the obvious question. What is pawpaw?

Andrew Moore: Pawpaw is the largest edible fruit that’s native to the United States. It’s a fruit that most of us Americans don’t know anything about.

BAF: How do you describe it for the uninitiated?

Andrew Moore: I’m trying to not say the common description. I’m trying to be unique here, but some people say it’s like growing crème brûlée on a tree. It’s got this tropical, custard-like texture that’s often described as tasting like a mix between a banana and a mango, so it’s both creamy and floral and bright and tropical.Pawpaws taste like apples. There’s a lot of different flavors and a range. Also, depending on how ripe they are. Some will taste like burnt sugar or caramel or really intense sweet, sugary flavors. Then some are more melon-like and more mild, so there’s a broad spectrum from tree to tree, and even as the fruit ripens. It changes greatly.

BAF:I could I just ask you to describe what it looks like if you’re in the woods and you come across one.

Andrew Moore: If you’re in the woods and you’re looking for the fruit, to me, I believe it looks like a green mango in the tree. It’s round, and often it’s smaller and kidney shaped, or even sometimes it’s as small as a fig. It’s this large, exciting, mango-like fruit you might find in the woods. When they’re on the ground, though, they’re often bruised and they’ll be blackish or purplish on the ground. When you tear it open, it’s got this unmistakably vibrant yellow to orange pulp.

BAF: You’ve got your hands on a pawpaw, how do you eat it?

Andrew Moore: It’s messy, and just go for it. Tear it open, squeeze the pulp into your mouth, or if you can

BAF: It has a large geographical range.

Andrew Moore: 26 eastern states. It’s abundant. It’s ubiquitous in much of the country.

In the tropics, in the Caribbean and west Africa, sometimes people use the word “pawpaw”, or exclusively the word “pawpaw” means papaya. There has been some disputing on what a Pawpaw is. They’re totally different and unrelated. They just happen to have the same word. Kind of like “biscuit” in the US and “biscuit” in England. Totally different things, same word. It’s confusing. Sometimes you talk to people in south Florida, and if they’re from those countries, or if they’re from Australia, even, and you say “pawpaw”, they might think it’s a papaya, but totally different.

BAF: You described it as forgotten. Has it ever been widely used?

Andrew Moore: Starting when humans first arrived on the continent, the earliest Native Americans quickly learned that it was, first of all edible, but also, I assume they might have found it delicious. They used the tree, the fiber of the tree, the wood for making rope and cordage for various purposes. The Shawnee are cited as having celebrated a pawpaw moon. The month of September was their pawpaw moon in the Ohio river valley. It was important. If you’re going to celebrate a month or name a month that, clearly it was an important fruit and item in their world.

Then, on to the earliest European settlers, from Hernando de Soto to the settlers at Jamestown. They encountered it, they knew it, and as settlements pushed further into the frontier, it would have been one of the many items that could be pulled from the woods for food. Appalachian frontier, Ozark pioneers, even settlers in the Midwest, Indiana, Kansas, Illinois, they would have eaten it and it would have been important. There were no grocery stores then, so anything you could pull from the woods was important. People continued to eat it up until about at some point in the last century, when we stopped eating lots of things from the woods. It wasn’t just the pawpaw that we forgot, the pawpaw just happens to be, in my opinion, one of the best things in the woods that people are starting to remember and starting to bring back.

BAF: How did it come to fall out of favor?

Andrew Moore: That’s a good question, and again, it wasn’t the only thing. We stopped eating a lot of things that you could eat, a lot of things that grew wild and that nature provided. Hickory nuts, black walnuts, ramps, wild berries, service berries, the native persimmon, and the Pawpaw was one of those. You can kind of look at the decline in general knowledge about pawpaws with the rise of supermarkets and homogenized food systems and national distribution systems. The Pawpaw doesn’t really ship well and it’s not necessarily easy and doesn’t pile well at your supermarket, the way you would pile up apples and oranges. It’s a little more delicate, and as we got away from that, as we started eating more and more canned and boxed and prepared foods, Pawpaw was left behind.

BAF: Is anybody using it nowadays? Are people using locally, that you know of? Are there any chefs that are featuring it?

Andrew Moore: Absolutely. I’ve been researching pawpaws for five years now, and each season, I’m finding it on more and more restaurant menus. People are bringing it to farmers markets more and more. There’s ice cream everywhere from Ann Harbor, Michigan to Charleston, West Virginia. Pawpaw gelato in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, pawpaw beers are everywhere, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina. People are doing things with it. It’s happening.

One of the things that’s exciting about the fruit is that it’s something that people can have an active hand in shaping. In a lot of ways, things like apples, which are just so wonderful and important, they’re fairly well-established. But pawpaw is absolutely brand new as far as something that we’re interacting with and developing, whether it be recipes or just ways of processing pawpaws or ways of cooking with it. It’s fun. I think it’s a fun new thing.

BAF: What’s your background, and how did this interest come about?

Andrew Moore: I am a gardener. I started gardening about the same time I discovered, or was introduced, to pawpaws. All things sort of came together. I’ve worked in kitchens to some extent, so I had some experience with restaurants and food distribution. I worked a at a farm-to-table restaurant in Pittsburgh. I just came to the pawpaw more so as just a curious person who thought it was a good story.

BAF: How did you come across it?

Andrew Moore: I was invited by a friend near Pittsburgh to attend the Ohio Pawpaw festival. That festival alone has introduced so many people to the fruit. It’s in its 17th year this year. They just had it, and it draws over near 10,000 people in recent years. That festival has done a lot to promote the fruit.

BAF: Maybe we could talk about your pawpaw social media.

Andrew Moore: Yeah. Chelsea Green has a website, chelseagreen.com/pawpaw, then I’m all over the social media. I’ve got a Twitter account and a Facebook page. I’ve got a blog, the papawbook.wordpress.com, and I still put photos and I blog my travels on there. I’m just finishing up a blog post now. I have a Flickr account where I put photos where I put photos from all my travels travels up there, pawpaw-related travels.

BAF: What response has the book had so far?

Andrew Moore: It’s been pretty good, I think. We got some really nice blurbs on the book, on the back. It’s just some of the people that I’ve long admired and looked up to are saying really nice things about it. The Washington Post just ran an excerpt. I don’t even know if it’s printed yet, but they had an excerpt on their website, and The Splendid Table looking at it, so it’s really exciting.

BAF: I love the history connection. It’s interesting. You mentioned ramps, so all of a sudden, these are like the trendy thing every spring, are the ramps.

Andrew Moore: Right, all of a sudden. Again, this is a thing I find with pawpaw. All of a sudden, ramps are really popular in New York City kitchens, Chicago, whatever, but in West Virginia they’ve been having ramp suppers and festivals for 70-something years. The same with pawpaw. People in the Ozarks, Appalachia, rural Midwest in some cases, they’ve always been eating them.

BAF: You mentioned the Ohio festival. What would be the epicenter for pawpaw appreciation?

Andrew Moore: Athens county, Ohio is the pawpaw capital. That’s what I call it in my book. There’s a research center in Kentucky, at Kentucky State University, but really, southern Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Those are some of the most abundant wild pawpaw patches, and in my experience, where you find people, particularly older folks, who know pawpaws. It’s not uncommon to talk to someone at a gas station. These are things I did. I just talked to everybody. People in those placed would remember pawpaws for a number of reasons. They’re still fairly abundant in the woods, and some of the food traditions in those parts of the country have been stronger, those older root food traditions have lingered longer there.

BAF: It was fascinating to read about a fruit that most people don’t know about. It makes one wonder what else is out there.

Andrew Moore: There’s a lot out there, you know. We talk about the diversity of rain forests, and certainly they’re more diverse than our American forests, but there’s still a lot in our own woods that we can explore and experiment with. There’s just a lot to discover. It’s kind of fun. Well, not kind of fun, it’s really fun.

 

 

“The pawpaw, also sometimes called the poor man’s banana, is a common fruit growing in temperate zones across the U.S., yet it is rarely seen in the produce aisles. Hoping to shed more light on this culinary mystery, as well as inspire consumers and growers to make the fruit popular again, first-time author and gardener Moore offers both an engaging history and a thorough cultivation guide to the pawpaw. According to Moore, the shrub-like, large-leafed pawpaw tree typically grows in clumps near river bottoms along a belt running from northern Missouri to southern Louisiana and east as far as the Atlantic Ocean. Although historically pawpaw was eaten by Native Americans and slaves, it probably owes its marketplace anonymity to a short shelf life and widely variable flavors. While it remains to be seen whether Moore’s well-written paean to the pawpaw will inspire increased production and distribution to grocery stores, uninitiated readers will be intrigued enough to want to sample the fruit at the first opportunity.”–Booklist

 

“Here is proof that culinary odysseys don’t always need to involve globetrotting or the pursuit of rare, exotic foodstuffs. But, then again, in his pursuit of the lowly American pawpaw, Andrew Moore reminds us that America was once considered an exotic destiny on its own, and has always had more than its fair share of culinary rarities.”–Damon Lee Fowler, author of Essentials of Southern Cooking and Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches

 

“Tropical growers have many shade crops to choose from, like cacao and coffee. Here in eastern North America we have our own luscious fruit for shady places—the pawpaw. Andrew Moore’s Pawpaw tells the story of this fruit and the people working to bring it to our gardens, markets, and restaurants. It’s the story of an eastern native fruit on its way to domestication, finally earning the place in our hearts and our cuisine that it deserves.”–Eric Toensmeier, author of Paradise Lot and Perennial Vegetables

 

“Andrew Moore has done an amazing job demystifying one of America’s most misunderstood and neglected fruits. Pawpaw deftly navigates between his own personal journey and the facts and history of the fruit, leaving readers—including chefs interested in heritage and tradition—with a true sense of how important it is to embrace this indigenous treasure.”–Travis Milton, chef and co-owner of Shovel and Pick, Richmond, Virginia

 

“This book took me on an enchanting and engaging ride through the history, folklore, and science of a neglected but magical food plant. Andrew Moore shows us, in delightful prose and a wealth of fascinating stories, the role that the under-appreciated pawpaw has played in North American culture. I was constantly surprised to learn of the quiet influence the pawpaw has had on the people and environment around it, and like the author, am hopeful that it can find its rightful place among the better-known fruits that we all love.”–Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden and The Permaculture City

 

“Like a gumshoe detective, Andrew Moore tracks down a mystery at once horticultural and culinary: Why is the pawpaw, America’s largest indigenous fruit, so little known? The answer, like the fruit’s beguiling taste, proves multi-layered and slippery, and after reading Moore’s engaging account, I’m ready to light out for pawpaw country myself in search of this homegrown original.”–Langdon Cook, author of The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America

 

“This book is a love song, singing the praises of a unique, delicious, and once-abundant fruit that has been sadly neglected. Andrew Moore takes us on a very personal journey investigating how and why North America’s largest indigenous fruit largely disappeared, and documenting efforts to revive it. Pawpaw is a pleasure to read, and if you do you’ll probably find yourself searching for and loving these delectable fruits.”–Sandor Ellix Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation

 

“America, get ready for pawpaw mania! Andrew Moore’s book tells the definitive story of the wild fruit that is part of our nation’s heritage, and in the process the author joins the ranks of food-preservationist heroes. Prepare to be overwhelmed with longing for the sweet scent and taste of the pawpaw.”–Poppy Tooker, host of Louisiana Eats!

 

“Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit is a fun and well-researched, informative romp through the culture and horticulture of this uncommon fruit. Uncommon, yes, but who would have imagined that there were and are quite a few other pawpaw nuts out there? If you don’t know pawpaws, you should, and you will.”–Lee Reich, PhD, author of Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden

 

“With Pawpaw, Andrew Moore walks firmly in the steps of the great literary journalists John McPhee and Mark Kurlansky. Stories deftly told, research deeply done, this book is an engaging ride through the haunts of a fruit many Easterners quietly—secretly, even—gorge themselves on each autumn. A ripe pawpaw is as illicit as Persephone’s pomegranate, and Moore captures that passion well.”–Hank Shaw, 2013 James Beard Award winner, Best Food Blog, and author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast and Duck Duck Goose: Recipes and Techniques for Cooking Ducks and Geese 

 

“I was fortunate to have experienced early in life, from my Monacan Indian and Black community friends, the joy of the pawpaw, as well as maypops, chinquapins, mushrooms, and huckleberries. Andy’s book is one of the road maps to the resurrection of another rooted American food commodity. Pawpaw will generate enthusiasm for this unsung fruit and hopefully engender passion in a few.”–Tom Burford, author of Apples of North America: Exceptional Varieties for Growers, Gardeners, and Cooks

 

Pawpaw Ice Cream

2 cups pawpaw pulp (or more, if you have it)

1 cup sugar 2 cups cream 2 cups milk  

Combine the pawpaw and sugar.

Stir in the cream and milk.

Pour mixture into an ice cream maker and freeze according the manufacturer¹s directions.  

Note: Vanilla, walnuts, and other flavors and ingredients work well with pawpaw. But if this is your first batch, I would encourage you to try it plain and to let the pawpaw stand on its own.

Prologue

Southern Ohio, September 2010

On my first pawpaw hunt, I had no idea what to look for. I’d been told that the pawpaw was the largest of all edible fruits native to the United States, but had never tasted or even seen one. I hoped this day would be the day.

Yellow blooms of goldenrod lit the field leading to the edge of the woods. A path wound beneath the canopy of oak and hickory—a lush, green, late-summer forest. I dodged mud puddles, poison ivy, clouds of lazy gnats hovering at eye level. Leaves and twigs crunched under my steps. Then, after just a few minutes, I saw the distinct, symmetrical leaves of a pawpaw tree, exactly as a friend had described them; I’d made it to a sprawling grove. More than a foot long and a deep, vibrant green, the leaves are also among the largest in the eastern forest. From where I stood, the trees seemed to be the only thing in the understory. As far as I could see: nothing but pawpaw.

I smelled the fruit—a sweet, tropical aroma—before I could see it. None of the pawpaw trees were very big. Some were ten feet tall, their trunks smooth and gray, but still no thicker than five inches in diameter. My hand easily wrapped around the first tree I shook, feeling for the weight of fruit. I looked up, and through the jungle-like canopy a single pawpaw was lit by the sun. I reached for where it clung to the end of a skinny branch, and at my touch the fruit fell neatly into my hand as if it had been waiting for the slightest movement to come along and release it. A gust of wind might have done the same. I had no other fruit on hand to compare and declare the pawpaw the largest in the United States but it definitely had heft—it was no berry, no wispy puff of sugar. It looked like an expensive import on a grocery store shelf, not something you could pick for free. I looked down and noticed there were two more on the ground. At the base of an oak tree, a third. Scooping them up felt like I was getting away with something, like I’d just discovered someone’s secret stash of goods. I couldn’t have realized it then, but in just those brief few moments I became hooked on pawpaws. And I hadn’t even eaten one.

The pawpaws still in the trees were green, reminding me of unripe mangoes. On the ground, the bruised fruit was purple and gray, and quite soft. With the push of my finger their skins broke. Some were shaped like eggs, others like overstuffed peanuts. While many were as big as peaches and apples, others were smaller, teardrop-like runts, no bigger than figs. I placed my hat, which was filled with fruit, on the ground and relieved myself of my shirt-turned-basket as well. It was time to eat.

Not knowing the right method, I tore one in half, which was easy despite the large seeds in the center. The pulp-filled, sticky interior was colored a soft orange, like cantaloupe. I wasn’t expecting such vibrancy, which seemed out of place in the Ohio woods. Squeezing some pulp into my mouth, I sensed first the texture—like custard, smooth, and delicate—then the flavor, which was truly tropical, with hints of vanilla, caramel, and mango. Then I ate another, which tasted like melon. Both were unlike anything I’d eaten before, certainly unlike anything I’d ever pulled from the northern woods. I went for yet another, whose large, black, lima-bean-sized seeds were packed in its center, wrapped in pulp. I sucked on each one for every morsel, which seemed sweeter around the seeds, before spitting them out onto the forest floor.

I enjoyed my first pawpaws, but I was shocked that I had not heard about the fruit until recently, and was only now seeing and tasting it. Had someone kept it a secret all this time? Who else knew about it? I’m a gardener, I camp, I hike, and I even pride myself on knowing the names of quite a few trees. How had I not heard of pawpaws before? I began to wonder, what was this strange fruit—which looked as if it’d be more at home in Central America—doing in these temperate woods, in a forest that would soon turn a riot of reds and yellows before growing increasingly cold and covered in snow? Surely the pawpaw wasn’t hardy enough to survive. These small trees, like ornamental hibiscus, would wilt and die soon, right?

But the answer was no. Rather than wilting and dying, these same pawpaws would continue to thrive and grow, and for several years I would return each September to pick their fruit.

Shortly after that first trip to the Ohio woods I learned that the pawpaw’s lineage does originate farther south. In fact, it’s the only member of the custard apple family, Annonaceae, that’s not confined to the tropics. But that just led me to ask how it got up here, and again, really, how had I and most other Americans—including my friends and family—never heard anything about it before?

More questions followed. But first, I ate another pawpaw. And another. Soon my feet were encircled by a ring of seeds, in the middle of a seemingly endless pawpaw forest.

Those initial questions I had about pawpaws, both before and after my trip—what do they taste like, where do they grow, how did they get here, and why have I never heard of them—are more or less the same for anyone who’s first introduced to the fruit. Partly because of this mystique, they’ve engendered a great passion in some people, including myself, who’ve become enamored, obsessed even, with pawpaws—many of whom I would later meet at festivals, farms, and gardens throughout the Midwest, South, and mid-Atlantic.

“It is said that no habit gets a stronger hold on a man than the pawpaw habit,” wrote one garden magazine in the 1920s.1 But at the beginning of my journey, I had no idea that such aficionados existed, and besides that one Ohio patch, I had no idea where pawpaws grew. After my earliest bit of cursory research, I was thrilled to learn that my adopted home of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, rested at the edge of the pawpaw’s native range. I’d ramble up hillsides, into roadside woodlots, searching. When I did chance upon a patch of fruit, whether on the banks of the Youghiogheny or along city streets, I shared them with friends, extolling their many virtues, and made pawpaw ice cream, pawpaw smoothies, pawpaw cream pies, and pawpaw bread. As a gardener, I saved seeds and even began to grow my own trees in five-gallon buckets. When the trees sprouted I gave them to friends, to community gardens, and eventually planted a pair in my own small yard. I knew it could take up to eight years before they would produce fruit, but that was okay. I was prepared to put in the time. I couldn’t get enough.

In my quest to find more trees and more fruit, and to learn as much as I could about them, I began to travel farther and farther from home. And I started to realize that while the culture at large had forgotten about this unique fruit’s existence, I was meeting people who remembered eating pawpaws—and many who still did—more often than I would have thought. After I learned to identify them, the trees that had once been so elusive seemed to be everywhere I went. In the following pages I offer a history of pawpaws, chronicle the efforts of growers and plant breeders to increase their popularity and marketability, and recount my travels in the American Pawpaw Belt. And if you’ve never tasted one before, I hope this book inspires you to find your nearest pawpaw patch.

 

The following is an excerpt from Pawpaw (Chelsea Green, 2015), and is reprinted here with permission of the publisher. For more information, visit www.chesleagreen.com.