15-41 Segment 2: The Pawpaw: America’s forgotten fruit

Synopsis: You can find almost any fruit – domestic and exotic – in the produce section of grocery stores across the country these days. There’s one fruit, though, that’s both domestic and exotic that you will have a hard time locating: the pawpaw. The once-common fruit has all but disappeared from stores except for a few mail order specialty shops and some farmers’ markets. We talk to a man who wanted to know more about this exotic, tropical-tasting fruit so he researched its history, culinary uses and the efforts to bring it back into favor here in the states.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Andrew Moore, author of Pawpaw: In search of America’s forgotten fruit.

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The Pawpaw: America’s forgotten fruit

Marty Peterson: We’ve all heard the word pawpaw. There’s a song that perhaps you remember from childhood titled Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch; or maybe you live in one of the cities or townships across the country named Pawpaw. Or maybe you’ve crossed the Paw Paw Creek in West Virginia or the Paw Paw River in Michigan. The name pawpaw isn’t foreign but the tree and the fruit it bears are something that not that many Americans are familiar with. Andrew Moore was one of those people, and after tasting the pawpaw fruit for the first time, he decided to investigate further…

Andrew Moore: When I was first introduced to the fruit I had never heard of it, nothing about it, so I had a ton of questions. And when I tasted it I though it tasted wonderful. It has this cross between a banana and a mango flavor to it. And, I just had so many questions – how did it get here, how had I not heard of it – and I wanted to find answers to those questions. And, as I kept asking, I realized that it was a good story, I thought it was a good story, so I wanted to share that with others.

Peterson: Moore does share it in his new book Pawpaw: In search of America’s forgotten fruit….

Moore: The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to the United States. It’s actually native to 26 eastern states in the country, including Ontario, Canada. And, in the tree hanging from the branch, it actually looks like a mango, a green mango. And when you slice it open it has this vibrant green or yellow pulp. And when you taste it, like I said, it has this unusual tropical flavor which is unprecedented, really, in these American woods.

Peterson: Moore says that the pawpaw belongs to the “custard apple” family, and that every other member of that family is a tropical fruit that grows in warm climates. Only the pawpaw made it up to the cooler northern regions, and it did so a long, long…long time ago…

Moore: The fossil record shows pawpaws dating perhaps as far back as 56 million years ago. Fossil records found in New Jersey and Mississippi – diverse sites. The pawpaw family as well as the pawpaw itself are among the oldest trees in North America, and so it took a long time. When I call it a tropical plant that happens to grow in the temperate, I do that with poetic license. It’s been here a very long time and it was a retreat and return of glacial coverings of the continent and a very, very long time that led the pawpaw to move from, perhaps, a more tropical region or climate to its current zones.

Peterson: Glaciers and climate change evidently hardened the pawpaw to withstand the temperatures in the North, and the seeds of the tree were spread by the strange and very hungry animals that fed on it…

Moore: We also had different animals on the continent, Macedons, you know, various mega-fauna that the fruit evolved to be noticed by those animals and eaten whole and then transplanted via their digestive tracts and moved around the country that way. So the first eaters of pawpaws weren’t humans, it was these large mammals and they were the primary dispersal agents for the fruit.

Peterson: When humans did make their way to North America, they found that the pawpaw was not just good for eating, but had a variety of uses…

Moore: The Native Americans, various tribes, made greater use of the plants that grew wild in this continent than subsequent settlers did, for various reasons. And if a Native American tribe lived near pawpaws, they would eat it, undoubtedly. They ate it each year. But they also used the fiber of the tree’s inner bark for cordage, for rope for various purposes including stringing fish or other types of nets; and there’s some citations from Kentucky, even, that state that pawpaw was used for loin cloths and sandals and rugs and mats. They really put it to great use.

Peterson: Moore says that Africans brought over to America as slaves used pawpaw and other wild fruits and nuts to supplement their, often-meager diets…

Moore: That’s one thing that I found interesting when I began my research, is enslaved Africans were afforded the liberty to hunt or gather at all. And, in most cases, that was probably a limited liberty. The pawpaw and other wild fruits and nuts like chestnuts or hickory nuts or even persimmons, the primary things that they would have been able to take from the forests, so each September as they ripened, if enslaved Africans had that liberty, they would have pulled those from the forest. African-American culinary historian, Michael Twitty has reported to me that in his travels he’s found a few former slave cabins surrounded by pawpaws. To this day, the pawpaws are still surrounding the cabins. In many cases, the pawpaw had a duel purpose. It wasn’t only a fruit that you could eat, but the fruit itself baited. It baited raccoons and possums and squirrels and other animals that would eat it in the night and then those hunters and cooks would trap those animals and those are the animals that would wind up in pots for stew.

Peterson: The pawpaw used to be relatively popular in our earlier history. Even in the not-so-distant past Moore says there was an excitement about the fruit and the trees…

Moore: There were cultivars as early as 1905, there was a named pawpaw cultivar. And even in 1916 there was a contest to find the best pawpaws in America, and so there was a lot of trading and excitement about pawpaws around that period. And then, for various reasons, that excitement sort of fell out of favor, and so a lot of those early named cultivars have faded.

Peterson: Moore says that often you hear that they faded from popularity because they’re not as easy to pack and ship as other fruits, but Moore thinks it’s probably something else at work…

Moore: What’s often said is that it’s just because the pawpaw has a short shelf life and it’s difficult to transport. But that’s the same for many other fruits, and people around the world have gotten around that and have figured out a way to make it a crop that’s shared and eaten widely. In my research and talking to people it just seems that we haven’t gotten around to the pawpaw. There’s so many wild fruits in America, fruits and nuts and roots, and many of the things that we consider staples in the American diet, things like blueberries, as domesticated, cultivated crops they’re real young. The blueberry as a domesticated crop is really only a hundred years. And so people have been experimenting with pawpaws for years and I think it’s just a matter of it’s happening now. Things take time, and I think that the pawpaw’s turn is coming.

Peterson: As far as packing and shipping goes, other fruits are picked at the peak of ripeness and then flash frozen for transport, keeping all of the nutrients that they had when they were fresh. In fact, Moore says that the pawpaw is not only delicious, it’s got a lot of the good things that nutritionists say we should be getting from the foods we eat…

Moore: We could probably call pawpaw a super fruit. The nutritional study’s show that they’re very high in potassium, niacin, lots of vitamins and it’s loaded with antioxidants as are most fruits. There’s only been one study done on pawpaw, which is illustrative of the newness of this fruit in terms of a food product. It hasn’t been given the same attention that all the other fruits and vegetables have. We’re waiting on more studies. The first study that was done included the peel of the fruit, and most people don’t actually eat that peel. So there’s still a lot to learn about the pawpaw which I think is actually a neat and fun thing about it is the fact that we’re still discovering things about it.

Peterson: One of those things is the fruit’s versatility in cooking. It was featured on an episode of the Food Network show, Chopped, and Moore himself was treated to an array of pawpaw dishes at a recent festival…

Moore: I’ve just returned from the Ohio Pawpaw Festival where I was a judge at the pawpaw cook-off. So I actually recently experienced a number of wonderful dishes prepared with pawpaws. I had a pawpaw crème brulee, a pawpaw gelato, a pawpaw ice cream, mixed drinks, cocktails, a pawpawcello, a hard pawpaw lemonade. Folks at this Ohio festival submitted all kinds of wonderful dishes, and I was lucky enough to get to try some of those.

Peterson: Moore says, however, that his favorite way to enjoy pawpaw is to spoon it out of the ripe fruit like custard. If the pawpaw isn’t found in grocery stores around the country, maybe the best place to find them is in the farmers’ markets. Moore says that because of the shipping issues at the moment, pawpaw really lends itself to the trendy food movements that are so popular today…

Moore: There are a lot of people who are interested in to a return to a local cuisine, local foodways and their food roots – everything from the slow food movement to the revival of heirloom fruits and vegetables, heritage crops. People are interested in these older American food traditions. It’s a huge growing trend in America. And the pawpaw fits in to that. It is a poster child for local foods. When we talk about the difficulty of transporting a pawpaw, it fits right into that local food movement. It’s something that can be grown and sold locally.

Peterson: Finally, why should we care about the fate of this obscure fruit when we have plenty of other fruit – both familiar and exotic – that we can choose instead?

Moore: We may have gotten away from it over the past hundred years but it was something we really cherished years ago. It was important enough that we named dozen of towns after pawpaw: there’s a Paw Paw Michigan, Paw Paw, Illinois, West Virginia, Kentucky. So it was something our ancestors really cherished and loved. And for people who are interested in connecting with those older food roots the pawpaw is a good way to do that. And it tastes good and we should eat good fruit, a diversity of fruits. That’s something I enjoy. I enjoy this seasonal treat each September I can go out and pick this unusual fruit that nothing else like it grows in our climate here, so it’s fun. It’s a really fun thing.

Peterson: To learn more about the pawpaw, its history, uses and the availability of pawpaw trees that you can grow in your yard, pick up Andrew Moore’s book, Pawpaw, available at stores and online at chelseagreen.com/pawpaw. Moore also invites listeners to read his blog at thepawpawbook.wordpress.com. For information about all of our guests, you can log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on i-Tunes and Stitcher.

Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.

 

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