My kingdom for a pawpaw

A few years ago, I watched a documentary on Netflix called The Fruit Hunters, about people who travel the globe in order to taste rare fruits — the mangosteen, for example, which doesn’t travel well when fresh, or varieties of mangoes that may grow only in one grove or even only on one tree in the entire world. It’s a great documentary and I enjoyed watching it, but although I do enjoy eating fruit and trying new foods, I didn’t really connect with the driving passion the “fruit hunters” had for their search.

Until now.

I am just finishing up reading Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore (and yes, I’m once again writing about a book before actually finishing it… terrible habit, I know). The pawpaw is a tropical fruit tree that is native to much of the Eastern United States, and also grows in the Southern edge of Canada (see this map of its native territory). Its fruit ripens in the early fall, and has a sweet tropical flavour that is commonly compared with mango, banana, and pineapple. Pawpaw used to be a staple foraged food; it was widely eaten by first nations tribes who lived in its growing zone, was prized by such eminent figures as Thomas Jefferson, and is remembered in the Appalachian folk song, Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch. Yet for all this, the pawpaw has virtually disappeared from American cultural memory and kitchen tables over the past hundred years. I live in prime pawpaw growing territory and had no idea this fruit even existed!

This situation is what Andrew Moore is writing to address, looking first at the history of the pawpaw in America, and then detailing the current “state of the fruit,” as it were: from the KSU Pawpaw Breeding Program to the Ohio Pawpaw Festival to the work of both small- and large-scale growers to bring the pawpaw back to the public eye and common consumption. There are some distinct challenges to their work: the pawpaw does not bear fruit for around 8 or 9 years after planting, and so deciding to grow pawpaws takes a large investment of time before any results are seen. Like the mangosteen, the fresh fruit doesn’t travel especially well; it bruises easily, ripens quickly, and must be kept very cold during shipping, which makes the whole process expensive. And to raise awareness and interest in the fruit without having demand so far outstrip supply that people give up on it is a delicate balancing act, especially as there are as yet very few large-scale pawpaw orchards in production.

I won’t say that this is the most well-written book I have ever read. Moore’s prose often brings out my internal editor when I run across a sentence that needs to be clarified or, more likely, just tightened up. So it’s been a bit of a slower read for me, and I’m pushing myself today to finish it in time to get it onto my October list. But in terms of piquing my interest in the pawpaw, Moore has absolutely realised his goal. I’m fascinated: by the fact that an entire nation could essentially forget a food it used to eat every year, by the work that people are putting in to breed and graft new varieties of pawpaw, by the luscious descriptions of the fruit’s flavour (mild, sweet, tropical) and texture (creamy, custardy). To the extent that it makes sense to say this without ever having eaten the fruit, I’m a pawpaw fan.

My timing here is unfortunate, however: I read Pawpaw just after its harvesting season came to an end, which means that if I want to try a fresh pawpaw I will have to wait a whole other year for the opportunity. Periodically I remember this as I go about my day and it’s like a mental itch I can’t scratch. But KSU has a whole page of pawpaw recipes and I just managed to track down a supplier of frozen pawpaw pulp (for the low, low price of $8/lb… hmm).  So perhaps there will be some adventures in pureed pawpaws around here to get me through to next fall. I will be sure to report back if so!