Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit
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The largest edible fruit native to the United States tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango. It grows wild in twenty-six states, gracing Eastern forests each fall with sweet-smelling, tropical-flavored abundance. Historically, it fed and sustained Native Americans and European explorers, presidents, and enslaved African Americans, inspiring folk songs, poetry, and scores of place names from Georgia to Illinois. Its trees are an organic grower’s dream, requiring no pesticides or herbicides to thrive, and containing compounds that are among the most potent anticancer agents yet discovered.
So why have so few people heard of the pawpaw, much less tasted one?
In Pawpaw―a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award nominee in the Writing & Literature category―author Andrew Moore explores the past, present, and future of this unique fruit, traveling from the Ozarks to Monticello; canoeing the lower Mississippi in search of wild fruit; drinking pawpaw beer in Durham, North Carolina; tracking down lost cultivars in Appalachian hollers; and helping out during harvest season in a Maryland orchard. Along the way, he gathers pawpaw lore and knowledge not only from the plant breeders and horticulturists working to bring pawpaws into the mainstream (including Neal Peterson, known in pawpaw circles as the fruit’s own “Johnny Pawpawseed”), but also regular folks who remember eating them in the woods as kids, but haven’t had one in over fifty years.
As much as Pawpaw is a compendium of pawpaw knowledge, it also plumbs deeper questions about American foodways―how economic, biologic, and cultural forces combine, leading us to eat what we eat, and sometimes to ignore the incredible, delicious food growing all around us. If you haven’t yet eaten a pawpaw, this book won’t let you rest until you do.
lines and along gas lines, companies began spraying with chemical herbicides. “They’re all gone now.” After talking with the Williamses I drive back to the open field where I spoke to the woman with her dogs. I continue beyond the pond to a small, forested ridge and hike for thirty minutes, thinking I might find a patch Clyde had missed. When I first left the courthouse, deed in hand, I thought I might find the Ketter fruit easily, in the woods where Estella reported picking it. But all I find
mouth.” It’s unclear what soreness Schoepf was treating, but McLaughlin also found pawpaws to be effective in treating cold sores. In 1850, medical researchers wrote that “the powdered seeds are used to destroy lice on the heads of children.”4 In 1871, the Journal of Materia Medica published the following: “The fruit of the Popaw is large and fleshy, and after it has been treated with port, yellow, sweet and luscious, and from its taste compared to custard; hence its taste. It is edible and has
none bore any fruit. As the heavy fog cover receded from the river, the forested slopes of the gorge were unveiled, though the mountaintops stayed covered. We were deep in the bottomland pawpaw habitat. As we drove into eastern North Carolina—our eyes scanning for roadside pawpaws—the Appalachian terrain eased into the Piedmont. The solitary peak of Pilot Mountain—a remnant of the ancient Sauratown Mountains—was a punctuation mark between landscapes. The Cheraw Indians (also known variously as
1992, the skeletal remains of a large, prehistoric creature were discovered in this area, a creature now known as the Pawpawsaurus. An herbivore, the Pawpawsaurus likely ate fruits. Perhaps even a proto-Asimina was part of the armored giant’s diet.48 But today, as you travel west into Texas, pawpaws are indeed fewer in number. The Sabine River, which divides Texas and Louisiana, marks the transition from pawpaw country to persimmon country. According to Caddo legend, an old Indian chief who
handy to do it, so I just started doing it myself.” She continues, “Pawpaws, it’s, I don’t know, maybe an acquired taste for some people. I’m not a big fan—my mother just, she knew where they was at and how to get them and everything.” Doris was raised in Brown County, Indiana, in the hill country south of Indianapolis. “She had gallbladder problems—I discovered many years later—and I think that’s why it upset her, because it’d make her sicker than a dog. But she’d eat it anyway. She’d just