Editor’s Letter: Pawpaw Pleasures
Getting to know the "Indiana banana"
As summer transitions into fall, we’re entering pawpaw season. Now’s the time to get out to the woods and start looking for an aromatic fruit that you’ll find growing wild in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska, as well as parts of the South and Mid-Atlantic.
The pawpaw is the only local member of a family that includes cherimoya and soursop. (It is not related to the papaya, sometimes also called pawpaw, though the pawpaw probably got its common name from settlers who noted a resemblance to a familiar fruit.) It tastes like a transplant from a tropical climate. Most tasters pick up notes of mango and banana. Beyond that, it’s an inkblot test for the palate. One friend, after puzzling over descriptions of the flavor, looked at me after he took his first bite and said, “Pear!” Some people taste citrus. I often taste pineapple and melon.
The texture is custard-like. You can scoop the pulp out with a spoon, and I’ve heard rumors of people sprinkling that pulp with sugar and torching it to make a forager’s crème brûlée. The best way to eat a pawpaw is straight off the tree, in the middle of the woods, squeezing the pulp out of the skin and spitting the seeds as you go, but the second-best is in ice cream, a go-to for every pawpaw fan I know. Fold the fruit into your custard base after cooking the eggs, dairy, and sugar, to preserve the delicate flavor of fresh pawpaw. Using a similar technique, you can make a phenomenal pawpaw custard pie, which was my favorite dessert around this time last year.
The fruit generally doesn’t take well to cooking, though when caramelized, it delivers a rich banana-bread flavor that makes an excellent brandy infusion. On the subject of banana bread, pawpaw substitutes well for banana in a loaf that’s even better when studded with wild black walnuts and accented with allspice-like spicebush berry. But we might have more information on that in the coming weeks, so I’ll hold back. In fact, we should be publishing several pieces about pawpaw as the season progresses, giving you ideas for the fruits growing on spindly branches in the woods near you.
One friend, after puzzling over descriptions of the flavor, looked at me after he took his first bite and said, “Pear!” Some people taste citrus. I often pick up pineapple and melon.
For now, I want to cover the basics of harvesting and enjoying pawpaws. The process isn’t complicated, but I’ve known friends and family to panic on first encounters, with unfortunate consequences. Shaking all the pawpaws out of your trees before they’re ready will end your harvest season, and if you’re so dazzled by the pawpaw experience that you take any and all fruit, including the overripe fruit on the forest floor, you can get as sick as you would if you ate an old mango.
A ripe pawpaw should be soft and squishy, like a perfectly ripe peach or avocado. It should be a light green, and it should drop off a tree with just a little bit of provocation. Do not shake the tree. Give it a gentle nudge and see what falls. It’s especially important that you’re careful this year, because early reports indicate that the late frost diminishing fruit harvests across the region has impacted our pawpaw crop, too. Our pawpaw trees were in bloom when that frost hit. If you’re lucky enough to find a tree that’s still loaded with fruit, don’t waste it.
Ideally, your fruit should come directly from the tree’s canopy. I’d be a hypocrite if I told you not to harvest fruit off the ground, but you don’t know what’s happened to a pawpaw that’s been sitting in the dirt. I’ll just say to practice good judgment. If it isn’t something you’d buy at the supermarket or the farmers’ market, you don’t want it from the woods, either. Beware blackened skin, though some black spots are normal.
Pawpaws don’t last long, which is one reason they haven’t gone mainstream. Once a fruit drops off the tree, it’ll stay good for a couple of days at room temperature or about a week in the fridge. Again, exercise common sense before eating.
You can sometimes ripen unripe pawpaws. You might as well try. A few years ago, I got a box of fruit that a friend of a friend had shaken down too early. Unwilling to trash them, I left them in a paper bag on the counter, where they slowly softened. Since, I’ve found that they ripen more consistently in the refrigerator, over the course of a few weeks, with a short finishing period at room temperature. That trick only works if they are already approaching ripeness.
Once you have ripe pawpaws, halve them and scoop or squeeze out the seeds and pulp. Run the pulp through a food mill or push it through a colander to remove the seeds and achieve a consistent texture. (The skin and seeds are not edible. Keep them out of the mix.) Then, proceed to use the pulp in recipes or freeze it in a zip-top bag, pressing out as much air as possible, for six months to a year. Thaw it slowly, in a refrigerator over a period of a day or two.
An infusion or liqueur can also preserve the fruit’s fleeting flavor. Pour a bottle of vodka or rum over one or two large pawpaws’ worth of pulp and let it sit for at least a week before straining. Sweeten to taste to make a liqueur. For the freshest flavor, you should keep the final product in the freezer, though it won’t go bad at room temperature.
You may have come across pawpaw in beer. It’s been a popular ingredient recently, straddling two trends in craft brewing: local sourcing and tropical fruit flavor. Jackie O’s, in Athens, Ohio, has long brewed its Paw Paw Wheat, a product of the brewery’s proximity to the pawpaw suppliers at Integration Acres and the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival. The beer originated at the festival—created by Kelly Sauber, then the head brewer at Marietta Brewing Company, in 2003. At last year’s festival, the twenty-first since Integration Acres’s Chris Chmiel threw his first pawpaw party in 1999, the Paw Paw Wheat shared a beer menu with nine other options from across Ohio. My favorite mouthful-of-pawpaw beer comes from Indiana, where Bloomington’s Upland makes a fruit-packed sour simply called “Pawpaw.”
If we don’t run too much more pawpaw content in the next few weeks, maybe I’ll fill you in on some of my favorite commercial varieties, many of which come from a pawpaw pro named Neal Peterson. If you can find a pawpaw grower nearby, go see that person, and ask about the Shenandoah and the KSU Benson. (Last year, I got the best pawpaws I’ve ever tasted from Marc and Shary Stadler at Valley View Woodlands in Urbana, Ohio, about an hour and a half from Cincinnati and an hour from Columbus. You can reach them at 937-215-0329.)
For now, if you’d like to know more, I recommend picking up Andrew Moore’s definitive book, “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit.” It’s currently on sale for $10, and it’ll help you understand the history and culture around the so-called Hoosier banana and communities like Paw Paw, Michigan, and Paw Paw, Illinois. If you’d like to guarantee that you get a taste of pawpaw this year, I recommend ordering a couple pounds of frozen pulp from Integration Acres. Most of all, though, I recommend getting out to the woods and looking for fruit. You can read and shop later. You’ll probably only be able to find local pawpaw until late September.