Pawpaw delicious, underappreciated fruit
While at my parents’ house last month for a Sunday dinner, I detected the scent of a sweet and almost tropical fruit in the farm kitchen, something similar to that of very ripe bananas.
I discovered the mysterious and inviting aroma wasn’t attached to anything harvested from a tropical region. Instead, the basket in question, filled with large green, thick-skinned fruit, had contents plucked from trees just a few roads over from our farm.
This fruit, foreign to both my nose and taste buds, was pawpaw fruit, something I’ve certainly heard of, but never tasted. These pawpaws came from the trees of our Greek family friends on the outskirts of our small town. My parents, like myself, were not too familiar with these sweet, delectable green pods that have been enjoyed for centuries in our Great Lakes region. Like many, I grew up with the children’s nursery song “Picking Up Pawpaws and Put Them in Your Pockets,” yet can’t recall ever eating them.
Sometimes called “the custard-apple,” the pawpaw ranks as the largest indigenous edible fruit in the United States. The inside orangey flesh, surrounding large black seeds, is creamy and often described as a “custard-like flavor,” somewhat similar to the flavor of a banana, or some say, mango or cantaloupe.
The name “pawpaw” comes as a verbal homage to the Spanish fruit papaya, which some people find similar in taste and color. Spanish explorers learned of the fruit from the Native American tribes. Throughout the years, pawpaws have also been called “the poor man’s banana,” “the Hoosier banana,” “the hillbilly mango” and “prairie banana.”
Over the state line, the village of Paw Paw, Mich., is named for this fruit because of the abundance of the fruit trees, which, at one time, lined the shaded banks of the Paw Paw River in Paw Paw Township. But during the last century, a number of the larger shade trees lining the river have been cleared, which caused many of the pawpaw fruit trees to vanish, since these fruit trees grow best in shade. Today, Paw Paw, Mich., is known for grape vineyards and wine production.
I paid a visit to see the pawpaw trees that belong to our friends down the road, and was amazed these trees grow so well in complete shade under the canopy of their surrounding oak trees. Their pawpaw trees had an abundant harvest this fall, with laden branches bent to the ground. Pawpaws are harvested by picking up any of the soft, ripened fruit that has fallen to the ground, rather than picking fruit from the tree branches. My dad has now planted his own pawpaw tree starts near the apple and pear trees at our farm.
As for why this fruit is far less prized today than orchards of traditional apples, peaches and pears found around Northwest Indiana and lower Michigan, our friends gave us some interesting insight into the traits of the pawpaw tree during the growing season.
The bloom of the pawpaw tree has a very faint, but pungent scent likened to that of “rotting meat,” and so it doesn’t attract the usual preferred insect pollinators such as bees. Instead, flies, fruit flies and scavenger beetles are among the less desirable yard and field insects that favor pawpaw blossoms and promote pollination. Even the leaves, branches and bark of the pawpaw tree contain acetogenins, a natural repellent insecticide, and therefore deer, rabbits and even goats avoid areas with pawpaw trees.
The famed Hoosier expedition team Lewis and Clark wrote about pawpaws during their journey and included them as a regular part of their diet during travels. President George Washington considered “chilled pawpaw fruit” one of his favorite desserts, and Thomas Jefferson had a number of pawpaw trees planted at his Virginia plantation Monticello.
Rather than for cooking and baking, pawpaws are usually most favored when eaten raw. However, historically, they have also been used as a flavor for homemade ice cream and jam. I discovered pawpaws can also be used as a perfect flavor ingredient for baked sweet breads, much like banana or zucchini bread. This fruit is also high in vitamins A and C, magnesium and iron.
Pawpaw fruit grows in clusters on the branches of trees, but should only be harvested once the ripened fruit has fallen to the ground.