Paw­paw de­li­cious, un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated fruit

Post Tribune (Sunday) - - News - Philip Potempa Philip Potempa has pub­lished three cook­books and is the di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing at The­atre at the Cen­ter. Mail ques­tions to: From the Farm, P.O. Box 68, San Pierre, IN 46374.

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.

PHILIP POTEMPA/POST-TRI­BUNE

Paw­paw fruit grows in clus­ters on the branches of trees, but should only be har­vested once the ripened fruit has fallen to the ground.

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