The curious history of pawpaws — and how to get a taste for yourself
by Kara Elder
September 18, 2020
Pawpaws are the largest fruit native to North America. They've been around for hundreds of thousands of years, writes Andrew Moore in his book Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit — seeds were even discovered at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, the oldest site of human presence in North America, in what's now Pennsylvania.
The tropical-tasting fruit — super soft and custard-like when ripe, with hints of banana, mango, pineapple, and pear, depending on the variety — was an important crop for indigenous people, who cultivated the fruit, helping them spread; today pawpaws grow all along the East Coast, into the Midwest, and even up into parts of Canada. In addition to eating the fruit, indigenous people would use the bark to make rope and string from the bark, and seeds could be ground and made into a head-lice shampoo, says professor Devon Mihesuah in this Gastropod episode all about pawpaws (shampoo from pawpaw seeds is still a thing!).
To hold onto the harvest a little longer, people even dried it for future stews and sauces — but note that it's not recommended that you try to dry pawpaws: it will make you sick! It's unknown what the Iroquois and other people did to make it ok to eat dried, writes Moore: "a reminder of the great loss of cultural knowledge that followed conquest by the Europeans."
Pawpaws were also a source of food and medicine for enslaved African Americans (if they were allowed to forage) writes Moore: "Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty has noted that a former slave cabin standing today in southern Maryland remains surrounded by a grove of pawpaws." Moore also notes that guides along the Underground Railroad gave information about which wild fruits were safe to eat, and where to find them — "According to one estimate, as many as one hundred thousand slaves escaped to freedom between the years 1810 and 1850 alone, on routes that cut directly through pawpaw habitat." There's also a lot of pawpaw lore from ye olde settler, colonial, and Manifest Destiny times, though general interest dropped around World War II.
So why can't you get a pawpaw in a grocery store, why didn't enterprising entrepreneurs nurture and cultivate and potentially exploit the plants in the mass market, as people are wont to do? For one, the fruits are super perishable and can't be transported long distances, explains chef Iulian of Arcadia Venture, and much of this country's food system is based on long-distance transportation which values imports from faraway places, despite the huge carbon footprint and lack of seasonality. Pawpaws must be picked when they're basically ripe, or they'll never ripen. (Kind of how you generally can't get a good peach or tomato in a grocery store, even in season: they're picked too soon — gotta be sturdy enough to survive transport — and don't ripen to their full potential.) But also, notes Moore, America's history of clearing the land to use as a source of timber, to make way for corn and tobacco fields, to mine, and build housing developments with invasive plants added to green spaces rather than letting native plants flourish...all that didn't help pawpaws (or, well, many other plants and people), either.
There are some folks, though, who are trying to bring more awareness around pawpaws, including your own local foragers! If you're up for foraging pawpaws, there are tons of guides online to help you do so. But if not, the Pickle Van is delivering a mix of cultivated and foraged pawpaws from Arcadia Venture and Villa Fungi. Get 'em while you can, because pawpaw season is brief and fleeting.
Fun growing tidbits: The pawpaw's blossoms "smell like rotten meat," says Iulien. Those blossoms are not attractive to bees, so other insects that are attracted to that sort of smell (carrion flies and beetles) tend to pollinate it more. Some people even put animal carcasses at the roots of their cultivated pawpaws in an attempt to attract these fun-loving bugs.
Pawpaws are also one of the only fruit trees that are very resistant to insects and diseases. They're almost always organic, and there's no need to spray the trees.
Once your pawpaws arrive: Iulien says it's best to let them ripen fully in the refrigerator. (I let a few of mine ripen on the counter and it was incredible to note just how quickly they did!) When ripe and ready to eat, they will be quite soft, with perhaps some small black splotches. "Soft" in this case means somewhere in between the feel of a perfectly ripe Hass avocado and a water balloon filled with pudding. (If you've had a fresh mamey, kind of like that.) Also, trust your nose! Ripe pawpaws put out a strong fragrance. One day I had almost ripe pawpaws, the next I awoke to an overwhelming scent of ripe tropical fruits. A joy.
To open and eat: Slice or tear into it, then use a spoon to scoop out the flesh and seeds, or just eat it directly out of the skin and spit the seeds out as you go. It'll be smooth and soft, like a thick custard.
To cook: This is the first time I've had pawpaws! I haven't cooked them because they are just so good fresh. (Sort of how in the first weeks of peach and nectarine season, you might not bother making pie or jam because it's just a pure delight to get super sticky and eat them straight.) However, here are some ideas for savory and sweet applications, including a barbecue sauce. Iulien also says he's seen people cook down pawpaw pulp to make a glaze — perhaps on chicken or ribs? Pawpaw ice cream and pawpaw bread seem to be two very popular ways to go. You might consider buying this little digital pawpaw recipe zine for even more inspiration.
Overwhelmed at the possibilities and need to ponder for a few days, but your pawpaws are ripe and ready to go? Scoop out the flesh, remove the seeds, and freeze the pulp for up to a year. Inspiration will strike soon. :)