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The Pawpaw: Locally Grown Taste of the Tropics Regaining ‘Pawpawlarity’

By Aaron Kagan / Photography By Aaron Kagan | September 15, 2010
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pawpaw farmer

What if there were a tropical fruit that didn’t have to be flown in from Mexico? A fruit that could be grown locally yet tasted like the love child of a mango and a banana? Though it may seem too good to be true, such a thing exists, and it’s called a pawpaw.

The pawpaw is the largest fruit native to the United States (and nowhere else) but it just so happens to look and taste as tropical as if it plopped out of the bonnet of Miss Chiquita Banana. The combination of its place of origin and exotic flavor have earned the pawpaw the nickname of “Indiana Banana” in some parts of the United States but luckily for Rhode Island locavores, the only pawpaw orchard in New England can be found within our foodshed.

Pawpaws are most commonly eaten fresh soon after their harvest in the fall but their creamy pulp is also frozen or used in baking, ice cream, custard, preserves and even beer and wine. The bunch that I acquired from Rocky Point Farm on Warwick Neck was simply too good not to devour immediately.

As soon as the pawpaws entered my kitchen, their musky perfume filled the room. I slit the belly of one of the splotchy, oval fruits and dipped a spoon into its flesh. When it hit my tongue, a cascade of flavors flooded through my mind. Pineapple… melon… vanilla!

Trying to describe the taste of a pawpaw is a brow-furrowing experience.  They are often explained by a cocktail of fruits, such as those I’ve just mentioned, plus passionfruit, papaya, pear and guava. A pawpaw really only tastes like one thing, and that’s a pawpaw. The luscious texture, which falls somewhere between avocado and banana, is closer to flan than fruit. It simply must be tasted to believe that such a thing could grow so far from the equator.

If you’ve never had a pawpaw you need go no further than the Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market in Cranston. Many experience their first taste of the fruit there thanks to the annual Pumpkin & Pawpaw Festival hosted by market manager Steven Stycos.

“At the market we cut pieces and let people taste them,” says Rocky Point pawpaw farmer Mark Garrison (shown left). “The first expression is puzzlement, then they say, ‘Oh! That’s good!’ Or a reluctant ‘OK,’” notes the farmer, who owns 40 acres of pawpaw and blueberry bushes just a stone’s throw from Narragansett Bay.

Garrison noted that the pawpaw’s distinctive flavor often divides first-time tasters into “love it” or “hate it” camps but as a lover, I simply cannot fathom the misguided reaction that happens in the mouths of the haters. I truly have never tasted a more delicious fruit than the pawpaws grown at Rocky Point.

Today few have heard of it beyond the lyrics of the song “Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch,” though the fruit used to enjoy what plant geneticist and pawpaw expert Neal Peterson calls “pawpawlarity.”

Europeans first encountered pawpaws in 1541 during the Hernando de Soto expedition, and they were commonly eaten by Native Americans throughout the fruit’s extensive range (as far south as Florida, as far north as Canada). Lewis and Clark intended to survive on nothing but pawpaws and “a buiskit” per person during 150 miles of their epic voyage, and even the founding fathers were fans of the fruit.

GeorgeWashington repeatedly mentions pawpaws in his diary (Friday, November 18, 1785: “Sent to Mr. Digges for Papaw Bushes to replace the dead ones in my Shrubberies.”) and while abroad, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend in Philadelphia asking for pawpaw seeds in order to give them away in Paris.

Despite its history, the pawpaw was dubbed the “most neglected American fruit” by the New York Times in 1922, and it remains so today. On-line, references to pawpaw are dwarfed by mentions of Martha Stewart’s (former) dog, named Paw Paw.  I visited Rocky Point Farm on a gray day in October, when Garrison’s verdant orchard looked positively out of place. Cartoonish clusters of the oblong fruits jutted out from between dark green leaves. Occasionally, one fell with a thud.

The ground was littered with windfall and with the large, toffeecolored seeds of last year’s bounty. Garrison reached up and snapped off a cluster to let me get a closer look, the same bunch that I would later eat.While inhaling their funky scent, I noticed that Garrison also grows apples. In fact, his two orchards nearly touch.

“Of course if they go the way of the apple, they’ll look better but they’ll be sprayed,” said Garrison, referring to the somewhat homely appearance of the bunch that I was holding. “Thud,” went a pawpaw.

Given its uniquely North American range, large size and scrumptious flavor, one would think that the pawpaw could have become the preeminent national fruit. Yet it never joined the ranks of the Concord grape, blueberry and cranberry, the only native fruits to reach high levels of commercial productivity.

When I asked Peterson, who Garrison refers to as “the guru,” about why the pawpaw failed to beat the apple as “the” American fruit, he suggested its thin skin and tendency to bruise and therefore difficulty to ship. Peterson sees our underdeveloped relationship with the pawpaw as indicative of a larger trend. “It’s very telling about the changes American society has undergone in the past 100 years,” he says.

Despite its newfound followers, the pawpaw is listed as “ecologically imperiled” by the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Or to be more accurate, “The pawpaw is not an endangered species but the folks knowledgeable about the pawpaw are,” says Peterson.

Yet pawpaw fans are loyal and growing in number. The pawpaw has enjoyed a resurgence since being “boarded” on Slow Food International’s Ark of Taste and included in the affiliated project known as RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions), both of which promote what they call the “save it by eating it” paradigm. There are bumper stickers that read “I’m Pro Pawpaw and I Vote,” and last year’s slogan at the increasingly popular annual pawpaw festival in Albany, Ohio, was “Pawpaws to the People.” Orchards that sell pawpaws on-line are unable to meet rising demand, all of which suggests that the once and future fruit is closer to a comeback than ever before.

The pawpaw could very well become mascot for the American local foods movement, a rallying point for both growers and consumers seeking to reconstruct our forgotten national food identity. Nothing better embodies our terroir than this truly American fruit found nowhere else on earth and so deeply embedded in our national history. Certainly not the apple, which, like Borat, is from Kazakhstan.

As we pay closer attention to where our food comes from, why not look a little further back? Even hardcore farm-to-table restaurants like the flagship Chez Panisse are cooking with crops that originated on other continents. In the quest for authenticity, shouldn’t an indigenous plant that our first president grew score higher than, say, a cauliflower?

As Peterson said, much has changed in the past 100 years but as the local foods movement has shown, our relationship with what we eat continues to evolve into something more sustainable, delicious and distinctive.  I for one hope that evolution will include more and more farms like Rocky Point taking up the cause of our patron fruit and planting pawpaw.

I’m sure you’d agree—just taste one for yourself. eR


For more information visit www.rockypointblueberries.com

…or try a pawpaw at:
Pawtuxet Pumpkin & Pawpaw Festival
Pawtuxet Village Farmers’ Market, 60 Rhodes Place, Cranston

Article from Edible Rhody at http://ediblerhody.ediblecommunities.com/recipes/pawpaw-locally-grown-taste-tropics-regaining-pawpawlarity
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