Rediscovering The Pawpaw

Pawpaws grow profusely in wild patches of land in Southern Ohio. They’re getting ripe right now: Taste one for yourself and see why this unique fruit is making a comeback.
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With its tones of banana, mango, and yellow custard, the pawpaw tastes like nothing else native to this region—it’s a tropical fruit that has wandered north and gotten lost in our forests.

Now little known, the pawpaw has an illustrious history. The fruit was an important part of the diet of Native Americans from Louisiana up to Ontario, and new arrivals became fond of them as well. George Washington’s favorite dessert was chilled pawpaw; Thomas Jefferson sent seeds overseas; and as late as 1886, a visitor to Cincinnati described markets full of them.

When cities and suburbs spread, pawpaws began to disappear from our tables. As Andy Moore, author of the new book, Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, told me, “when most of us stopped eating wild foods, the pawpaw was left behind.”

After decades of neglect, though, the pawpaw is making a comeback. Farmers are cultivating them, and people are putting them in everything from beer (here is one local brew) to cheesecake and gelato. Michelle Obama planted one in the White House garden, and Ohio, in 2014, identified the pawpaw in its travel guide as the “official native fruit.” But the First Lady only planted one tree (you need two to get fruit), and Ohio included a picture of a papaya (totally different thing) next to the designation. So clearly the pawpaw renaissance is still in its early stages.

Luckily, it is getting easier to discover this fruit. The Boone County Arboretum in Kentucky has an annual pawpaw tasting that includes cultivated varieties. Shagbark Farm collects wild pawpaws and sells them at the Hyde Park Farmers Market on Sundays in September. And anyone who catches the pawpaw bug can go to the Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Athens County from September 11-13.

If you’re feeling truly adventurous, you can always hike through the forest, as I did in Burnet Woods, and find your own pawpaw patch. Make sure the fruit is soft and fragrant; slice it open; remove the black seeds; put a scoop in your mouth; and taste our long, humid summer concentrated in the golden pulp.

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