A pawpaw primer: How a forgotten fruit got found again

The pawpaw tree and its custardy fruit have long been a staple for West Virginians who knew where to find a pawpaw stand.

“It’s the most delicious wild fruit you can find,” said David Moore, a Lincoln County resident.

Moore has taken more than a passing interest in what is the largest edible native fruit in the United States. For years, he has studied and cultivated pawpaw trees. He has about 200 planted on his property, although don’t ask to buy one of his trees as he’s still tinkering with his patch of pawpaws. (For the record, alternative spellings include “paw paw” and “papaw,” but we’re going with “pawpaw”).

Moore is among a band of serious pawpaw fans, farmers and proponents aiming to ride the crest as a beloved, but little known, native North American fruit busts a move out of the niche it has long occupied in Appalachian lore and diets.

It used to be that the only pawpaw most people had ever tasted was a fresh one in the woods as a kid, fallen to the ground or plucked ripe off a tree, then sliced or squished open, it’s orange-yellow flesh scooped into the mouth.

People dispute over the description the pawpaw’s flavor. Some call it a draw between banana custard and mango mash, to the point that one of its several alternative names is “bandango,” as well as a “poor man’s banana.” Others won’t even tolerate discussion of caramel and tropical flavor tones like pineapple. They say that a pawpaw “tastes like a pawpaw.”

The woods used to be the only place you could get that taste.

“Some years, there’s a lot of them in the woods. And some years you can’t find ’em at all. You have to beat the raccoons to them,” said Moore.

Some old-timers prefer to let the skin of a pawpaw turn black before eating them, he said. “I don’t like to eat black ones. That’s about like eating a black banana.”

While Moore is old-school in his pawpaw habits (“Eat ’em raw,” is his desired serving), he prefers to eat varieties that ripen to a yellow color where you can dent the flesh and it’ll stay dented. That’s when it’s ready for his taste buds.

“Extremely delicious,” he said.

But there are many more ways to consume pawpaws these days as any Google search of pawpaw recipes will demonstrate.

The short and hyperlocal list includes the pawpaw ice cream Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream in downtown Charleston makes every September as pawpaw trees bear fruit. It usually sells out in two or three days. It goes on sale Sept. 30.

The Nature Wonder Wild Food Weekend, sponsored by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources at North Bend State Park in Cairo Friday through Sunday, will feature pawpaw pie and other recipes from foraged pawpaws, in an event founded by Edelene Woods and inspired by legendary wild foods advocate Euell Gibbons.

Then, there’s pawpaw-flavored moonshine produced by Appalachian Moonshine in Ripley, which is far from the only alcoholic pawpaw permutation. The Marietta Brewing Company’s Putnam’s Pawpaw Ale and the Athens, Ohio-based brewery Jackie O’s PawPaw Imperial Wheat Ale are two among various pawpaw-flavored brews.

Events like the popular Ohio PawPaw Festival at Lake Snowden in Albany, Ohio, which occurs Friday through Sunday, have spawned tens of thousands of new fans for a very old fruit. Founded in 1999 by pawpaw uber-promoter Chris Chmiel, the festival drew 8,000 people last year.

The event has literally and figuratively propagated a host of new pawpaw products, purveyors and fans, with sales of trees and workshops on “Pawpaw Permaculture” and “Cooking with Pawpaws,” not to mention “Pawpaw Jeopardy” and the “Pawpaw Olympics” (think seed spitting and pawpaw toss contests).

Chmiel’s online store for his Integration Acres website (“Getting pawpaws to the people,” is its manifesto) offers everything from PawPaw Maple Vinaigrette and PawPaw Autumn Harvest Chutney, to PawPaw Spiceberry Jam and frozen PawPaw Pops.

Meanwhile, pawpaws have perhaps met their definitive biographer in Andrew Moore, whose award-winning book, “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015), is a comprehensive history of all things pawpaw. Moore will sign copies at Taylor Books, 226 Capitol St., starting 6 p.m. Friday. For the curious and uninitiated, the event features a pawpaw tasting and a scoop of that precious Ellen’s pawpaw ice cream for buyers of Moore’s book, for as long as the supply lasts.

If you need further proof pawpaws are one hot fruit, know this fact: Pawpaw farmer David Moore says demand for growing the trees is so strong nationally and internationally that the big black seeds you have to eat around when consuming a fresh pawpaw are worth their weight in ... well, if not gold, some sort of precious substance.

“Right now the demand for seeds is outrageous — $90 a pound,” said Moore.

A long history

It is incorrect in one major sense to describe pawpaws as a little-known fruit. Perhaps to the larger contemporary American public they are little known, especially given the highly perishable nature of the ripened fruit, which softens quickly and must be eaten within a few days.

This has bedeviled its mass marketing and transformation into a fruit-of-the-moment, in the way the once exotic kiwi ­(the rebranded Chinese gooseberry) skyrocketed in popularity in the 1980s, owing in no small part to its durable fuzzy skin.

Despite scores of stories in recent years touting pawpaws as the Next Big Fruit, the reality is fresh pawpaws will likely remain a largely seasonal attraction at farmer’s markets and autumnal festivals.

Yet at the same time, the flavor of pawpaws is being seen in a growing variety of year-round products. The frozen pawpaw pulp sold by Integration Acres offers one way to skin a pawpaw, so to speak, by just reaching into the freezer.

Then, there is Deep Run Orchard in Carroll County, Maryland, the largest commercial pawpaw orchard in the country, with more than 1,000 trees on five acres. Owners Jim and Donna Davis have used the power of modern refrigeration and next-day shipping to get fresh pawpaws into the hands of everyone from old-time pawpaw addicts to New York City chefs.

Yet despite its non-existent profile in big box grocery chains, Asimina triloba ­(the proper Latin name for the pawpaw ) has a storied history in the diet and culture of Native Americans, European settlers, American slaves and presidents, as recounted in Moore’s book.

It is almost required that any story about pawpaws cite a few lines of the American folk song “Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch”: “Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in a basket / Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.”

But pawpaws were part of Native American life long before European settlers delved into the Eastern woods and someone wrote an ode to the fragrant fruit they encountered, said Moore.

Pawpaws could be found growing in North America more than 50 million years ago, Moore writes. That was back when they shared the land with giant sloths, woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers, whose consumption of the fruit helped spread its seeds far and wide after they’d made their way out of the big beasts’ digestive tracts.

Native American tribes such as the Iroquois and Cherokee likely tended selected choice trees. And — a fascinating note to ponder — Moore speculates whether a wild pawpaw patch with great-tasting fruit nowadays might be one formerly tended by Indians.

He concedes this may be a bit of pawpaw romanticism. But some of the best pawpaw trees of modern times are found in the Southern Ohio River Valley, once inhabited by the Shawnee, who marked a “pawpaw moon” at the height of pawpaw season — what we now call September.

“Also, looking into ancient history, with some of the mound building culture, we found stores of pawpaw seeds and other fossilized pawpaw remains,” said Moore, in a phone interview.

The author was reached by cellphone while resting beneath a tree during a festival at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate in Charlottesville, Virginia, after leading a pawpaw tasting in the Jefferson Historic Kitchen. “I did a lecture, kind of a Pawpaw 101,” he said.

His book traces the timeline of when pawpaws were a more familiar feature of domestic diets.

To extend the harvest of a fruit the Iroquois called the “hadi’ot,” they would dry it and mix it in sauces, stews and corn cakes. You may think smoothies are a modern invention thanks to the blender. But Moore notes that American Indians may also have incorporated the pulpy fruit into a smoothie-like beverage, mixed with parched corn flour.

What is certain is that white settlers took a shine to the native fruit, with its signature teardrop-shaped leaves found in the understory of forests across the Eastern Seaboard and beyond.

“The earliest colonists and explorers recorded eating the fruit. Jamestown settlers knew the fruit,” Moore said.

The fruit was eventually celebrated in the naming of towns, including Paw Paw, West Virginia (which uses the alternative spelling and celebrated its first pawpaw festival this past July) and Paw Paw, Kentucky, among others.

Pawpaws, whose healthful antioxidant and nutritional qualities are still yet to be completely plumbed, were also likely known and eaten as a wild food supplement by ill-fed slaves and escaped ones, Moore said. “For enslaved Africans attempting to escape and achieve freedom in the north, if it was pawpaw season this is something that would have sustained them.”

Presidents appreciated the pawpaw, so much so that both Jefferson at Monticello and George Washington at Mount Vernon had pawpaw trees planted on their estates.

It may be a myth, though, akin to Washington not being able to tell a lie about cutting down his father’s favorite cherry tree that the favorite dessert of America’s first president was chilled pawpaws, said Moore.

What is for sure is that pawpaws and presidents have maintained their relationship. The Obama White House planted a pawpaw tree on the White House grounds a few years back, he said. “So, it’s a tradition that continues — presidents and pawpaws.”

Who forgot?

But what of the title of Moore’s book, which dubs the pawpaw “America’s forgotten fruit”? Who forgot it?

“We used to go to the woods for a lot more food, from meat and game to mushrooms and nuts and berries,” he said. “When we stopped going to the woods for food we stopped knowing about the pawpaws.”

In 1916, pawpaws were featured in a nationwide contest by the American Genetics Association, to seek out America’s best pawpaw fruits and trees for breeding (with a $50 prize for each). But as Americans drifted from the woods to markets and then supermarkets, pawpaws dropped, quite literally, from sight. Many wild pawpaw patches have been mowed down or paved over.

Old practices died out. Since pawpaws are pollinated by flies and not bees, one traditional practice was to hang roadkill or meat in a pawpaw tree to pollinate the trees. (This year’s Ohio Pawpaw Festival, in fact, features a smiling fly in its logo to underscore how the trees come to bear fruit.)

Yet West Virginia is an exception to his “forgotten fruit” premise, Moore added. The state’s still lively hunting, gardening and wild food foraging culture have kept awareness of the fruit alive in a way that hasn’t happened in the mainstream culture.

Not to mention that for a couple of days every year, visitors to Charleston can taste pawpaw ice cream at Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream Shop at 225 Capitol St.

Moore, who prefers his pawpaws fresh, said his second best way to eat them is as pawpaw ice cream, gelatos and sorbets.

“I would consider Charleston to be a lucky community in a way,” said Moore, noting that not everyone likes the flavor of a ripe pawpaw.

But served up in a cone or bowl, as a refreshing and subtly flavored treat? (Full disclosure: In researching this article, I got an advance taste of Ellen’s pawpaw confection and vouch highly for it.)

“The ice cream wins over otherwise pawpaw doubters,” said Moore.

Old-timers are among the oldest fans of pawpaws, having scrounged them from the woods as kids.

If local residents do get a taste of Ellen’s pawpaw ice cream, thank 82-year-old Aileen Wren. She is such a fan of the fruit that 18 years ago she planted two trees in the yard of her Kanawha City home. She is a pawpaw pipeline to the ice cream shop.

“I’ve already given her five Kroger bags full of pawpaws. Probably, there’s way more than that on the trees to ripen,” she said last week.

Wren remembers scavenging the woods for the fruit as a child growing up in Clay County. “We’d just find them out playing,” she said.

“I always liked the taste of them. You either like them or you don’t. A lot of people take one little bite and that’s the end of it forever. I’ve got three daughters. Two of them love them and one won’t taste them.”

Another set of West Virginians, potter Susan Maslowski and her husband, archaeologist and Marshall University grad school instructor Bob Maslowski, are in the midst of their own attempt to bring attention to the pawpaw. In their case, though, they’ve taken to Facebook to protest the potential demise of a favorite pawpaw patch on a friend’s property in Culloden, which harbors more than 50 mature trees. The patch would be taken out by the proposed path of the Mountaineer Xpress Pipeline, which will cut through Cabell and Putnam in shipping natural gas through the area.

“It’s going to be entirely wiped out,” said Susan, who is trying to raise word so the pipeline can be diverted around the patch.

Meanwhile, the couple has been spreading the wealth, drawing fruit from the threatened orchard.

“We gathered some and took them to the Putnam Farmer’s Market today to introduce some of the customers to the pawpaw, because so many people have never even seen or tasted them.”

Other than straight up fresh, Bob likes his blended with dark rum, milk and crushed ice in a drink he calls Pawpaw Paradise. Susan makes a pawpaw pie that has a brownie base. “It’s almost like pawpaw mousse,” she said.

Here’s a cooking tip straight from the pawpaw patch and Susan’s lips: “You can pretty much substitute pawpaws for many recipes that contain bananas.”

Johnny Pawpawseed

Finally, no pawpaw story would be adequately reported without mentioning West Virginia’s key link to the pawpaw renaissance underway in America and around the world, once you consider the steady stream of orders for seeds, pulp and trees globally.

That would St. Albans native Johnny Pawpawseed, Papa Pawpaw and Mahatma Pawpaw.

No, actually those are all just nicknames given to R. Neal Peterson. Coming on four decades now, Peterson has hand-pollinated, bred and popularized a fruit he first tasted beside the river in Morgantown in the early ’70s, while studying plant genetics at West Virginia University.

“In the vernacular, as we say, I was blown away. Because it tasted so good,” said Peterson, who now lives in Harper’s Ferry.

Moore’s book devotes entire chapters to Peterson’s role in crafting exceptional varieties of the modern pawpaw: fleshy with fewer seeds, and with textures ranging from custard-like to avocado-esque.

For you see, pawpaws in the wild are quite irregular, often tiny as a Vienna sausage, sometimes bitter. Taste one of those, and you won’t be back, he said.

Peterson evaluated more than 1,500 trees. He culled them down through the years for flavor, smaller seeds, more pulp and bountifulness on trees.

The result? Six of what Moore describes in his book as among the finest all-star cultivars or varieties of pawpaw. They are all named with Indian place names and words: Shenandoah, Susquehanna, Rappahannock, Potomac, Wabash and the Allegheny.

You can taste them for yourself, ordered through Deep Run Orchards. Or, if you’re lucky, you may find a Peterson pawpaw at one of the festivals or farmer’s markets popping up hither and yon.

As one colleague said of Peterson’s lifelong pawpaw binge: “Without Neal, pawpaws are still in the woods.”

Peterson is not a boastful man, but is quite matter of fact in describing the long-ago insight he had. He would devote his life to a once well-known, then forgotten, now rediscovered fruit

“Any crop we’re growing today had its beginning as a wild plant,” he said. “I just made that kind of leap of reasoning that if peaches and oranges and apples had started in the wild and had become standards of agriculture, the pawpaw could do that, too.”

Given their window of perishability, pawpaws will likely never be as available as apples, peaches or bananas. Which, after all, may make them all that more special.

Ocean Spray once contacted Peterson and wanted some of his pawpaws to experiment with concocting a commercial pawpaw-flavored juice.

“I said, ‘OK, how much do you need?’ They said, ‘We need a ton.’”

Peterson chuckled at the memory. That was just for testing, he said. “Nothing ever came of that as you can see. It gives you a sense of the scale that national companies operate.”

And don’t get him started on the roadside vendor he heard about last year. The man was selling wild pawpaws for $11 a pound, an exorbitant price given how erratic a wild pawpaw’s flavor can be. Buy a bitter one for that price and you won’t be among the new crop of pawpaw evangelists.

“This is really poisoning the market. I think only the best-quality fruit should be offered,” said Papa Pawpaw himself.

“That way, you’ll convert somebody to be a fan who’ll want to eat pawpaws every year.”

Contact Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@wvgazettemail.com, 304-349-3017 or follow him on Twiitter at @douglaseye.

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