Recently, neighbor, Jay Stratton arrived at my door and asked if I'd ever heard of pawpaws, maybe in an old song, and he sang a snatch. Well, yes, I'd heard of them and even remembered hearing the song back in my childhood. So he asked if I'd ever eaten one and showed me a bag of the fruit from a tree on his farm, giving me a couple to try. He described how to eat them. Just cut them in half - crosswise works best - and scoop out the yellowish pulp with a teaspoon, but don't eat the seeds as they are said to be toxic. The flavor, he said, was like a cross among banana, pineapple and peach, and the texture somewhat soft, like custard pudding.
Stratton didn't think I'd find anything much on the Internet about them, since they are not commercially grown as far as he knew, but a quick search as soon as he'd left provided many hits and I read and downloaded some fascinating information about these ancient tropical fruits, resembling a papaya - hence the name pawpaw. Since all the sites said to cut them and eat them with a spoon, some showing lengthwise, some crosswise, I decided to try one. I cut my first one length-wise and scooped out a spoonful. Yum. I noted there were ten black seeds, about the size of a lima bean, mixed in with the fruit, and I just swished them around in my mouth to slurp off the flesh.
Setting aside the second pawpaw to share with my mother, Fran Anderson, I returned to the Internet and watched a video imbedded in an article on www.npr.org - search pawpaw for the blog post titled "The Pawpaw: Foraging For America's Forgotten Fruit." The article, written by Allison Aubrey, started off, "So what the heck is a pawpaw?" The video was from "Tiny Desk Kitchen: Ever Had A Pawpaw?" "Recently I heard about a secret snack," Aubrey writes. "Kayakers who paddle the waters near Washington, D.C., told me about a mango-like fruit that grows along the banks of the Potomac ... A tropical-like fruit here, really? Yep. It's the only temperate member of a tropical family of trees. You can't buy the pawpaw in stores, so for years, the only way to eat them was straight from the tree."
Photo by Marybelle Beigh
The pawpaw fruit is the only temperate member of a tropical family of trees and was a favorite of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as well as Thomas Jefferson.
Intrigued, Aubrey contacted a D.C. nature guide, Matt Cohen, who showed her how to find them, taking the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. The video documents her field trip and taking some back to the city for others to try.
Several of the Internet sites provided bits of the history of the pawpaw, including that it was growing here in temperate North America thousands of years before the "first" or "Native" Americans ever set foot on this continent. It is said to be the largest edible fruit native to the United States, having a range of 26 states from Florida to southern Ontario, and westward to Nebraska. The Native Americans shared their knowledge of the tree and fruit with the earliest European explorers and settlers and actually "cultivated and tended" small orchards under the canopy of the vast forests that existed in the eastern half of the U.S. prior to colonization.
"Thomas Jefferson had pawpaws at Monticello," Aubrey writes. "And when he was minister to France in 1786, he had pawpaw seeds shipped over to friends there. ... Lewis and Clark wrote in their journals that they were quite fond of the pawpaw. At one point during their expedition in 1806, they relied on pawpaws when other provisions ran low."
The office of the Westfield Historian is located at 117 Union Street, in the small green building on the north side of driveway. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 9 to 11 a.m., or by appointment. The Westfield Historian phone number is 326-2457, and the email mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The pawpaw has only recently, since the 1970s, been somewhat commercialized by a plant scientist named Neal Peterson who has spent the past 35 years breeding the pawpaw for size and more flesh.
"His pawpaws are being grown in a few orchards and sold at farmers markets," according to Aubrey.
Since several of the sites, as well as Stratton, alluded to there being recipes for the pawpaw, a search was made which discovered pies, sorbet, salads, marinades for fish and chicken, pawpaw lassi, pawpaw mead and even pawpaw beer. When he returned a few days after providing me with the first two fruits, Stratton brought me four more fruits with which to "experiment," but the recipes required more flesh than they would provide, so I've been sharing them with family and friends, and of course, eating more myself. At least one new pawpaw eater has saved the seeds in hope of starting her own pawpaw trees.
Stratton recalled a number of years ago, many of the residents of Barcelona had pawpaw trees in their yards, a fact they noted with great pride. If any readers have more stories or knowledge about our local pawpaw trees and fruits, contact the Westfield Historian. Thanks.