Cincinnati Curiosities: Pawpaws

The wondrous pawpaw, from making whistles to wetting whistles.
Illustration of the Pawpaw (Papaw) fruit

From American Cyclopaedia by George Ripley & Charles Anderson Dana

Any reader immediately understood the Cincinnati Enquirer’s very brief note buried in the edition of Sept. 15, 1881.

“Our country exchanges bring up the intelligence that paw-paws are ripe and the crop good. Therefore, we will take up the burden of life once more.”

This dispatch from the “country” meant that summer’s heat was waning and the joys of autumn lay just ahead. Although Cincinnati sits in the middle of its natural habitat, the paw-paw is not usually an urban tree and most of our residents live their lives without tasting this most unusual native fruit. Pawpaws do not travel well and spoil quickly. One might find a few at Findlay Market or some of the suburban produce stands, but it’s an uncertain quest during a brief season lasting only from mid-September until the first good frost.

Pawpaw fruit has the texture of soft custard and is colored a creamy yellow with a flavor that is challenging to describe but often equated to a blend of banana and mango. Cincinnatians once awaited paw-paws in the local markets. Here is the Enquirer again, from Sept. 27, 1865:

“The PawPaw – This luscious fruit is now in its prime and was never more abundant or of finer quality in our markets. In price it ranges from ten to twenty cents per dozen.”

In addition to its fruit, paw-paw trees had many other uses. The inner bark is especially slippery, so a short piece of branch is quickly transformed into a whistle by sliding the outer bark back and making a few cuts with a pocket knife. Thin and springy pawpaw branches made excellent switches for driving cattle or pigs. And, while slick, the inner bark was also tough and resilient and could be braided into rope or used to weave the seats of handmade chairs.

One such chair belonged to Amanda Perry, age 72 in 1888, who showed it to the Cincinnati Post. Mrs. Perry believed this to be the first chair ever made in Cincinnati, when the town was still named Losantiville. She told the Post, “The wood came from a tree that was cut down to clear the way for Main St., at what is now the corner of Fourth and Main. After he finished the frame he gathered pawpaw bark right around here to make the split bottom.”

The country folk knew that a good stand of pawpaw bushes or trees was a sign that the soil was especially fertile. In the old newspapers can be found many references to the rural districts as “pawpaw country” or “the pawpaw environs.”

But delicious fruit, whistles, switches, and chairs were not the only products of this “northern banana.” The sugary fruit also fermented nicely and pawpaw beer and pawpaw brandy were renowned for their potency.

The Enquirer, on Sept. 5, 1893, compared pawpaw beer to the notorious liqueur, absinthe.

“The new drink is an intoxicant of the worst form, resembling somewhat the great French drink, absinthe. It is made from ripe pawpaws, and is called pawpaw beer. It improves with age and has to be a year old before it can be used. Several rounders have felt the crazy effects of this new drink”

If pawpaw beer gathered comparisons to absinthe, pawpaw brandy inspired journalists to frenzied prose. Here is Roy Lee Harmon reminiscing for the Raleigh, North Carolina Register on July 31, 1963:

“Now pawpaw brandy was a drink without a peer. You could take a few snifters of it and feel like you were floating on a pink cloud eating ice cream and viewing some beautiful scenery.”

And here is a United Press dispatch datelined St. Joe, Arkansas on Nov. 17, 1932:

“A fortune awaits the man who sets out a big acreage of paw-paws and learns the secret, so guarded by the hill folk – how to make that powerful beverage, paw-paw brandy. Many stories are told of the strength of the concoction. Its manufacture is a secret and the formula has been handed down from generation to generation among the hill folk. Tourists beg for a spoonful and prohibition agents have hunted it. None is for sale.”

One man who attempted commercial distillation of pawpaw brandy was Adam Brewer (an appropriate surname) of Campbellsburg, Indiana. News reports from 1915 suggest that the abundant pawpaws of southern Indiana offered him enough raw material to attempt it. Even if he had succeeded, Prohibition was just around the corner. He was soon out of business.

More recently, a dedicated zymurgist from Athens, Ohio, one Kelly Sauber, distilled six gallons of 80-proof pawpaw brandy, aged with charred and toasted American white oak for 3 months. His report  is enticing.

“So to describe the flavors, this brandy starts with a light tropical fruit nose, rimmed with almonds. This is followed with ripe fruit coating the tongue continuing with toasted oak and alcoholic warmth. Neat or over ice, this is a sipping brandy perfect for a wood fire and a cool evening.”

Koval Distillers out of Chicago also produces small runs of a pawpaw liqueur.

According to that 1932 United Press dispatch, the best way to tame the pawpaw brandy beast is to pour it into tea.

“Now a bit of paw-paw brandy in tea improves the flavor greatly. If this fact were known generally, tea parties again would be the fashion and the hip flask would disappear entirely.”

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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