Tied down with brown twine
Up past the tree line
Up by I hope where
The King of Spain don’t care.
I’m sitting up in my pawpaw tree
Wait they make mango mush outta me.
–The Fiery Furnaces
A Taste of the Tropics in the Midwest
Discovering the pawpaw has been a lot like discovering the ground cherry. In both cases, part of the thrill was getting to try something you can’t buy at a typical grocery store. However, they’re both pretty unpleasant when they’re green—sour, bitter and mildly astringent—so based on my very first taste of both, I wasn’t 100% convinced they were safe for human consumption. But once they ripen, they’re just glorious. They’re as sweet as strawberries or the ripest melon or peach and fill the kitchen with a beautiful citrusy, floral perfume. And they’re both strangely reminiscent of vanilla custard. Despite whatever challenges are involved in cultivating and transporting them, they’re both so appealing that I’m genuinely surprised no one’s managed to make them commercially viable, at least in some kind of frozen or preserved form.
However, the pawpaw seems just slightly more incredible than the ground cherry. The latter at least has familiar local analogs like cherry tomatoes and blueberries. The pawpaw, on the other hand, seems like nothing that ought to grow anywhere within fifteen degrees latitude of Michigan. They’re shaped like champagne mangos, but the flesh is paler and much creamier, almost like ripe avocado. They smell like a cross between orange blossom, pear, pineapple, and honey. The flavor is milder than the aroma, but still unmistakably tropical.
I hate when that word is used as an independent flavor descriptor—normally, as far as I’m concerned, “tropical” is a climate or a region, not a flavor—but whatever the common denominator is between mangos and guavas and papayas, whatever combination of volatile esters and carbonyls and alcohols artificially-flavored “tropical” candies attempt to mimic, pawpaws have it too. As the common name implies, their closest gustatory cousin is probably the banana. In addition to the “Michigan banana,” the pawpaw has also been referred to as the: prairie banana, Indiana (Hoosier) banana, West Virginia banana, Kansas banana, Kentucky banana, Michigan banana, Missouri Banana, the poor man’s banana, Ozark banana, and banango. Even the tree looks like it belongs somewhere with winters that could be described as “balmy.” It has broad, glossy leaves and big reddish-purple flowers. My supplier, a generous friend with a pawpaw tree in his backyard, says it looks like a tree that “took a wrong turn at Panama and ended up in the US midwest.”
Where to Find Them, and Why It’s So Hard
Unfortunately, unlike ground cherries, pawpaws haven’t shown up at my local farmer’s market (at least not that I’ve seen). They may be available at some markets in Ohio and Indiana or farther south. If you do come across someone selling them, don’t be turned off by bruising or soft spots. That often indicates that the fruit was ripened on the tree, which is what you want. Unlike tomatoes, which are merely lackluster when they’re picked while green and artificially “ripened,” a pawpaw picked early may remain unpleasantly bitter even after it softens into mush. Many people actually think they taste best when they’re a little spotted and soggy. However, once they’re ripe, they’re very delicate—just like a brown banana or a super-ripe pear. Probably the number one reason the pawpaw hasn’t been cultivated for mass distribution is that it would be virtually impossible to transport tree-ripened pawpaws in bulk without damaging them so much that most people wouldn’t want to buy them.
Another reason they’re hard to find is they’re apparently not especially easy to grow. The flowers don’t self-pollinate and their evolutionary adaptation to that is to emit an odor similar to rotting meat to attract flies. However—as I’m sure people who grow them near their homes appreciate—the odor is quite faint, so it doesn’t always do an especially good job of attracting the desired pollinator. Some growers actually drape roadkill on the branches of the tree or around the base to attract more flies in hopes of getting more fruit out of their trees (CSMonitor).
They’re not really vulnerable to any insect pests, but foxes, possums, squirrels, raccoons, and bears are very fond of them, and may even knock nearly-ripe fruit off the tree and then leave it to ripen on the ground for a day or two before coming back for it. Just to complicate things even further, although the trees will tolerate the midwestern winter, they don’t like it if the ground is too cold for too long, so depending how far North of the equator they are, they may only grow in low-lying areas near running water.
On top of all of that, it can take a half a dozen years or more for a seedling to reach fruit-bearing maturity and even if you manage to get a pawpaw tree or two to thrive, flower, and fruit, there’s a good chance they will only yield a substantial harvest for about 4 years. They will propagate—like aspens, a single root base can send up multiple trees—so if you manage to get one tree going, you’ll probably eventually have a small thicket (which is also why references in early American literature are almost always to a “paw paw patch” rather than to a single tree). Presumably, the younger trees (okay, technically, just newer branches of the same clonal colony) will mature as the older ones pass into dormancy, providing you with a steady stream of fruit. However, that lifecycle doesn’t lend itself well to sustained, large-scale pawpaw production.
There is a research program at Kentucky State University dedicated to studying and promoting pawpaw cultivation, which should come as especially good news for anyone concerned about the future or ethics of banana consumption. And there’s some guy named John Vukmirovich in Chicago who claims to be part of a “pawpaw conspiracy,” which essentially involves planting pawpaw seeds around the south side of the city. The Christian Science Monitor interviewed him for their 2008 story about the pawpaw’s “comeback,” and his rationale was:
We need to create more than we consume. We need to reverse the process and green the world more.
I’m not sure if planting such a fussy little tree is really going to “green the world,” or what planting seeds has to do with any “conspiracy,” but I would be delighted to discover a pawpaw growing on a tree in the middle of a city sidewalk so by all means, conspire on.
If either of those projects succeed, perhaps someday we’ll be able to buy pawpaw pulp in the frozen section of any supermarket or forage fresh fruit even in urban areas. But for now, your best bet is to make friends with someone who has a tree in their yard, try to find a commercial grower near where you live, or order a seedling and start your own pawpaw patch. Unfortunately, I missed the 12th annual Pawpaw Festival held in Albany, Ohio the weekend before last, but consider this your advance notice—if you really want to try pawpaw and can’t find them anywhere else, start planning now to attend the 13th annual Pawpaw Festival, which I imagine will probably be held in mid-September next year.
How to Eat Them
You basically just want to get them into your pawpaw-hole any which way you can, but here are some suggestions:
2) Cut off the top and bottom and then cut the peel off in long strips, like a mango, and slice or cut into wedges, prying the seeds out with the knife as you go.
3) Just take a bite. The skin is slightly bitter, but it’s not as tough as mango skin and it won’t hurt you.
Or, if you’re the lucky sort who has too many pawpaws to eat plain and raw, there seem to be two classic ways of preserving them:
4) Make pawpaw bread by substituting pawpaw puree for banana puree in any banana bread recipe (or for the pear puree in this recipe). According to the Wikipedia article about pawpaws, in West Virginia, this style of bread is traditionally baked in canning jars and then processed in a hot water bath to seal, which will preserve it for up to a year. Presumably you could do that with any kind of snack cake, although the Ball Mason Jar folks don’t endorse it because the variable heat in the oven could cause the jars to break and the very center of the bread might not reach safe internal temperatures. It seems to me like it would be pretty low-risk as long as you test the center to make sure it’s baked through. The worst that might happen is when you went to open it, you’d find mold or it would smell rotten and you’d have to throw it away. But I suppose just to be on the safe side, you could just bake the loaves in normal pans and freeze or give away any excess.
5) Puree the flesh and freeze it, and then thaw it slightly before serving. Frozen pawpaw was apparently one of George Washington’s favorite desserts, and I imagine it would taste even more like ice cream than it does at room temperature. You could also blend frozen pawpaw pulp with other fruits and juices or milk and ice cream to make a smoothie or milkshake.
The aforementioned Kentucky State University pawpaw research group also offers recipes for pawpaw pie, custard, cake, cookies, muffins, ice cream, preserves, zabaglione, sherbet, or punch. The fruit also ferments easily, which some people take advantage of to make pawpaw wine, and I imagine if you distilled fermented pawpaw mash, you’d end up with a powerful pawpaw brandy. But I don’t expect to be trying that, or any of the other recipes anytime soon because I honestly can’t imagine wanting to fuss with the original. It tastes like tropical fruit custard right off the tree. Some people compare it to banana cream pie filling, which is like a fantasy out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: these bananas don’t taste like bananas, they taste like what people do to bananas to make them into dessert!
All of which means you don’t even have to be a locavore to lament how much harder it is to get your hands on pawpaws than bananas. If you do manage to get your hands on some and you like them too, perhaps you should join Vukmirovich and me in the “pawpaw conspiracy,” and save the seeds and plant them wherever you roam. Check back in a few years for advice on step 2: how to gather and drape roadkill all over town without anyone noticing.