The Forgotten Fruit
Imagine slipping into a time machine that could take you back hundreds of years to the earliest European exploration of what we now call the United States. What would you find to eat in the woods and fields of Michiana? Now imagine going back much, much further—say tens of thousands of years before any humans occupied the continent.
If you were lucky, you might find a fruit that still grows today in the understory of eastern forests from the Midwest to the South: the pawpaw.
A sweet and fragrant custard-like delicacy with a taste reminiscent of bananas and mangoes, the pawpaw—its botanical name is Asimina triloba, but it is also known by its Hoosier moniker, “the Indiana banana”—is the largest edible native fruit in the United States. The only temperate member of the custard-apple family (which includes its more familiar tropical cousins, the cherimoya and soursop), prizewinning pawpaws can grow as large as grapefruits.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the pawpaw, given its long history as a source of sustenance for indigenous Americans and European settlers, is the fact that the fruit is largely unknown today, even in its native habitat. In his James Beard Award–nominated book, writer Andrew Moore has set out to change that, telling a captivating story of America’s “forgotten fruit” culled from the archives, the memories of old-timers and profiles of a motley crew of pawpaw enthusiasts who have found a vocation in its cultivation.
Native American people, Moore finds, ate pawpaws fresh, dried, mixed into corn cakes, made into flour, in soups or stews and mashed into pulpy beverages—the precursors of today’s fruit smoothies. European explorers (including the Lewis and Clark expedition, which survived several days on a propitious pawpaw patch) and countless settlers followed suit, enjoying the fruit straight from the tree and in baked goods. George Washington planted pawpaws at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson collected pawpaw seeds from the hills of Virginia to send to Europe. Today pawpaws can still be found in the woods surrounding Monticello.
The popularity of the pawpaw among early American settlers and their descendants is evident in the multitude of streets and towns across the eastern United States bearing the fruit’s name—towns like Paw Paw, Michigan; Paw Paw, Indiana; and Paw Paw, Illinois.
Today, however, few Americans are familiar with the fruit that seems as though it should be as American as apple pie. To find out why, Moore travels through the “pawpaw belt” from the South and the Mid-Atlantic through Appalachia to the Midwest, searching for rare cultivars and abandoned pawpaw orchards, visiting pawpaw festivals, sampling pawpaw beer and gelato and chatting up locals anywhere he spots a pawpaw tree.
Moore’s travelogue is rich with fascinating details—who knew the pawpaw is the only host for caterpillars of the zebra swallowtail butterfly or that its yeasty-smelling magenta flowers are pollinated by carrion flies and beetles rather than bees?—and better-than-fiction characters, like Neal Peterson (whom he christens Johnny Pawpawseed), a scientist-turned-pawpaw-breeder with a 40-year passion (bordering on obsession) for the fruit.
Short of a real time machine, Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit may be the next best thing for would-be time travelers and culinary explorers. Read it, then grab your boots and get picking.
Pawpaws are in season in Michiana starting in the early fall. Look for them in wooded areas, especially near rivers and streams. And check your local farmers market!
The 18th annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival will be held September 16–18 at Lake Snowden in Albany, Ohio. OhioPawpawFest.com