In 1916, agricultural experts voted the pawpaw the American fruit most likely to succeed, ahead of blueberries and cranberries. But today, most people have never even heard of it, let alone tried it. What is the pawpaw, and how did we forget it? Listen in this episode for a tale that involves mastodons and head-lice, George Washington and Daniel Boone, and a petite but passionate community of pawpaw obsessives.
The pawpaw belongs to a family of tropical fruits called the custard apples, and its cousins are popular throughout Central and South America. The guanábana, or soursop, is a common ice-cream flavor in Mexico; the cherimoya is one of Peru's most beloved fruits. So what is the tropical pawpaw doing so far north—and why has it been overlooked? The answer to the first question is simple, according to Andrew Moore, author of Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit: it is a very ancient plant that emerged during when the planet was much warmer. When things cooled down, it likely survived in a few pockets of North America, only to be redistributed across the Eastern part of the continent in the intestines of very large animals. "Before humans showed up in North America, the pawpaw was eaten by large megafauna," Moore explained. "Things like giant ground sloths or mastodons would have eaten the fruit whole, carried it across large distances, and then, through their droppings, deposited seeds."
The answer to the second part of that question is more complex. Certainly, the continent's original inhabitants were pawpaw fans. According to Devon Mihesuah, whose work at the University of Kansas focuses on empowering indigenous peoples, the pawpaw was not only enjoyed as food, but also valued as the raw material for products as diverse as head-lice shampoo and ropes. Early colonists, too, were intrigued by the fruit, and a stand of pawpaw trees helped Lewis and Clark survive a tricky patch on the Oregon trail. So why is it so overlooked today? "People say the pawpaw's been forgotten," Mihesuah said. "I'm not sure that it's been forgotten. I think it's been ignored, disliked, and unavailable."
This episode, we explore why, and we speak to the pawpaw breeders, farmers, and enthusiasts who are leading its revival. Sheri Crabtree, a plant breeder at America's only academic pawpaw research program, at Kentucky State University, told us "there is growing interest in pawpaw as a new crop." A little bit further north, near Athens, Ohio, Chris Chmiel has made promoting the pawpaw his life's work, founding the world's largest pawpaw festival, as well as becoming the world's largest pawpaw processor. And Gastropod listener Sara Bir, who suggested this episode, has written a pawpaw cookbook that aims to lure in the uninitiated with puddings and quick breads. Listen in now to find out more about this mysterious fruit—including where can you get hold of it!
Chris Chmiel is the founder of Integration Acres, an 18-acre farm in southeastern Ohio dedicated to producing sustainable, local products—including fresh pawpaws, frozen pawpaw pulp, pawpaw preserves and chutneys, and even goat cheese from goats who graze around the pawpaw trees! He also founded the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, a multi-day extravaganza devoted to all things pawpaw; mark your calendar for the next one in September 2019.
Sheri Crabtree is a horticultural researcher at the Kentucky State University pawpaw program, where she works to breed new commercial pawpaw cultivars, acquire and maintain the official U.S. pawpaw germplasm collection, and promote pawpaw cultivation.
Devon Mihesuah is Cora Lee Beers Price Teaching Professor in International Cultural Understanding at the University of Kansas. She is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and author of Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness, a book that inspired her to launch the American Indian Health and Diet Project.
Andrew Moore and Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit
The photo illustrating today's show was taken by Jonathan Palmer, KYSU Land Grant Program, and used courtesy of Kentucky State University.
This post has been edited to make it clear that the pawpaw is native to North America, rather than the tropics.