Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Pawpaw

If I challenged you to go out into the woods and live for a week on the food you found there - what would you eat? As any good forager or survivalist (or avid Bear Grylls fan) will tell you, the woods of North America are a veritable cornucopia of food - plenty of it really yummy. All you have to do is look around you and you’ll find good eats. And sometimes, you just have to look up! Trees are a great source of forageable food, from their fruit (like mulberries and persimmons) to their leaves and roots (like sassafras). Another great tree that gets overlooked is the pawpaw, which is a shame because it is America’s largest indigenous fruit!

It’s actually quite surprising to find out that there’s a pretty good chance the biggest fruit in America could be within walking distance of your back door. The pawpaw has a large range, extending from Canada to Florida and from Nebraska to the Atlantic. Plus it has a tropical taste that some people describe as a cross between a banana and a mango. Just picture it: there are tons of people out there who drive to the grocery store to buy bananas, papayas and mangos that have been shipped thousands of miles, when they could stop along the road and pick up an amazing fruit that – in some folks’ estimate – tastes even better! The fact that millions of us don’t even know what pawpaws look like underscores the strangeness of our current food system.

Hopefully “America’s forgotten fruit” will be stepping back into the limelight with all of its recent media attention. And with concerns over food waste and hunger only increasing, leaving perfectly good fruit rotting on the ground nearby is an even more egregious situation.

A Brief History

The pawpaw has been used by Native Americans for centuries. The Cherokee and many other tribes ate the pawpaw and the Iroquois used the mashed fruit to make small dried cakes to reconstitute later for cooking. Some tribes used the inner bark of the tree to make ropes and cordage. Many tribes also dried the fruit in the sun or by fire for storage to make the fruit last. At one point it was thought that the pawpaw is the decedent of papayas that Native Americans brought from South America, but fossil evidence has proven that pawpaws are indigenous to North America. However, it is still believed that the pawpaw’s range is as large as it is because its growth was encouraged by Native American groups.

Once the Europeans came to the Americas, they of course noticed the pawpaw. Hernando De Soto was the first Eurpoean to write of the fruit in the 16th century, saying they were “like unto peares … hath a verie good smell and an excellent taste,” and that Native Americans “through all the countrie” cultivated pawpaws. It’s thought that early European colonists mistook the fruit De Soto described as a papaya and the name morphed into “pawpaw.” In the colonial and early American period, the pawpaw made its way into the Europeans’ diets.

Factual Nibbles

  • The pawpaw made it to presidential plates: George Washington is said to have had Hercules - the famous enslaved chef - serve Washington’s pawpaws chilled (probably because it lengthened the fruits’ shelf life).
  • Thomas Jefferson, as usual, loved the native fruit and tried to get it to grow outside of its natural element – this time shipping it over to Europe. There is a beautiful pawpaw growing next to his home, Monticello.
  • On their expedition up and back the Missouri river, Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery was able to survive in part by eating pawpaws. By the time of their return trip in September of 1806, Lewis, Clark and crew were “very fond” of pawpaws and actually subsisted on them for three days as they made the final push towards the end of their expedition.
  • American painter Edward Edmondson, Jr. painted this awesome painting of the pawpaw in the mid 1800’s.

Cultivation

Pawpaws grow best in well drained bottomland around waterways. It’s an understory tree that doesn’t grow to be very big, so it also does pretty well in areas along ridges and in rocky spaces around watersheds. I grew up along the mighty Missouri river and they grew all over the sides of the river, which are pretty heavily graded in certain areas. It’s no wonder the Corp of Discovery found them!

The common pawpaw (Asimina triloba)is in the same family as the more tropical papaya (Carica papaya) and cherimoya (Annona cherimola), but there are some key differences so that you can tell them apart. The papaya is the most distinct of the three, with orange flesh and a multitude of black seeds in a central cavity. Pawpaws look similar to cherimoyas, but pawpaws are oblong and the seeds run through the center of the fruit whereas cherimoyas are rounded and the seeds radiate around the center of the fruit. Also, the skin of the cherimoya is scaled or rough where the pawpaw’s skin is smooth.

Like a lot of fruit-bearing trees, the pawpaw's flower and fruit cycle is pretty fascinating. Instead of putting out leaves and then blooming as do most plants, the pawpaw flowers early in the spring before its leaves begin coming out. The really interesting thing that sets the pawpaw apart is that it's pollinated by carrion insects. To be clear, it's not the bee or butterfly that populates the pawpaw, it is flies, beetles and other bugs that eat dead things. The flowers are dark maroon and kind of look like meat, and the flowers put out a slight fragrance that is similar to rotting meat. Some folks who try to propagate pawpaws even hang rotting meat in their groves to attract these insects!

Regardless of its "interesting" pollination strategy, the pawpaw doesn’t do a good job of spreading via seed. It's so difficult for pawpaws to create viable seeds that some folks think the trees are self-incompatible and do not self-pollinate. People who are super into pawpaws actually hand pollinate their trees. Thankfully, the reason there are so many pawpaw trees still out there is because they spread by their roots, creating offshoots that grow into clonal patches.

The difficulties of pollination are part of the reason that groceries don't regularly stock this most-local of fruits. The pawpaw also doesn’t last very long on the shelf. From the point when they fall off the tree, you'll only have a short time to use a fresh pawpaw before it goes mushy and overripe. Unlike some other tree fruits, they don’t do a good job ripening off the tree. 

Combine these factors with the distribution model used by big fruit and grocery supply companies, and the reason pawpaws aren’t a household name anymore becomes apparent. When you base the success of your business on scale, commoditization and a constant supply out of season, the pawpaw doesn’t fit. So shop farmers' markets, support local farmers and ask for local foods at your grocery so that maybe one day pawpaws will be a staple fruit on the American table once again!

To get around their short shelf-life, some companies and individuals preserve pawpaws or use them in products. There are tons of pawpaw jams out there. You can also get pawpaw ice cream and a lot of pawpaw beers.

Seasonality

Pawpaws become ripe in late August through September and into October.

Environmental Impact

Just like any wild, food-producing trees (like mulberries and sassafras). pawpaws have a positive environmental impact. Trees like pawpaws that grow along the sides of watersheds and on rocky, graded soil are particularly important when it comes to erosion control. In fact, some habitat restoration projects use pawpaws to prevent erosion because they’re so good at spreading via their hardy root structure. They're also amazing carbon sinks and do great work cooling the planet and improving air quality.

Last but not least, fruit bearing trees like pawpaws are an incredibly important food source for wildlife like squirrels, raccoons, opossums, foxes and even bears. The pawpaw is also the sole food source for the larvae of the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly. The acetogenins in the leaves of the pawpaw, which we’ll discuss below, are thought to serve as a deterrent to the butterfly’s predators.

Characteristics and What to Look for

The pawpaw looks like a giant, light green kidney bean. It’s filled with a yellow pulp that turns deeper in color the riper it gets. The texture of the pulp is described as a sort of custard-like (some folks call the pawpaw the American custard apple). There are big dark brown seeds throughout the fruit, but because they’re so big they’re easy to eat around.

Once ripe, the pawpaw will fall off the tree and can be gathered from the ground. When you were little, you may have sang The Pawpaw Patch song, about some little kid picking up pawpaws off the ground and putting them in their pocket. Now you know why. One good way to make sure your pawpaws are at peak ripeness is to shake the tree gently and grab the ones that fall off. And as mentioned above, because the fruit over-ripens quickly, you'll want to eat/use them pretty close to when you gather them. As they further ripen off the tree, they'll give off a really pungent, perfume-y smell - so be prepared!

If you want to forage for pawpaws yourself but don't know where to look, ask the ombudsmen for your state's park system, conservation or natural resources department. I highly recommend befriending foraging experts and old-timers in the know. Who knows what other cool backwoods-y stuff you might learn - like where to find morels or fiddleheads! If you want, you can also order fresh pawpaws online to have the overnighted to you. Play it safe and place your order in August or September to make sure you get some before they run out. By the way, you’ll get extra points if you go to the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, in which there is a pawpaw eating contest. Naturally.

Nutrition and Affects on the Body

When compared with the common fruits that Americans eat, like the apple, banana and orange, the pawpaw measures up pretty favorably. According to Kentucky State University, the pawpaw has three times the vitamin C as an apple and twice as much as a banana. It has double the riboflavin as an orange and a good amount of niacin. It’s also has a high amount of protein including all essential amino acids.

The other exciting thing about the pawpaw tree is that it produced acetogenins in its leaves and bark. Acetogenins have been researched as a botanical insecticide and as a treatment for lice. According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, acetogenins have been studied as a tool to fight cancer. However, because of this and other compounds in the pawpaw, some folks have allergic reactions to the fruit. If you handle a lot of them, you can also get a rash on your skin from allergic reactions. This might have happened to some of the men on Lewis and Clark’s expedition.

What to Do with It and Cooking

First thing is first: eat these dudes raw. Cut them up and dig in, while watching out for seeds. There’s a couple different techniques, but expect to get a little messy. Some folks like to halve them and get in there with a spoon. If you want to use the pulp, instead of scooping it into your face, squish it through a colander into a bowl using your hands. You can also use a fancy strainer and wooden pestle (i.e., a chinoise) if you’re at that level. The pulp freezes well.

As far as cooking is concerned, since the pawpaw has a sort of custard-like consistency, it works really well in any recipe that calls for smashed banana. This baked pawpaw pudding recipe looks awesome and will blow everyone away. Life can only get better if you make this pawpaw cheesecake. To really get a lot out of your pawpaws’ flavor, stick with pawpaw ice-cream and other cold preparations so that you don’t lose any flavor. The other great use for pawpaw is baking. Basically anything you can use bananas for, you can use pawpaw, so make pawpaw-nut bread!

Storage

When you get your hands on pawpaws you’ve got three options for storage. You can keep them at room temperature and use them quickly. If they’re ripe, you can throw them in the fridge so they last a little longer (around a week). If they’re slightly under-ripe, they’ll ripen in the fridge for a few weeks or you can just freeze the pulp.

Stretching Your Food Dollar Through Preservation

The third option is to preserve the fruit or dry them. Think jams, preserves or the cool drying techniques like those the Iroquois used, as mentioned above. There are also a couple of companies that use pawpaw in their beer and cider. If you’re into making homebrew, try incorporating pawpaw!

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