The Pawpaw Predicatment

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Almost every Ohioan can rattle off our state tree – the buckeye tree – with it’s inedible nut that’s been personified as a mascot for our capital football team.   But when asked what our state fruit is – most would probably be stumped.   It happens to be the pawpaw.   And then most would follow up with the questions – what the hell is a paw- paw? – I’ve never heard of it!

The paw paw happens to be the largest edible fruit tree native to North America.   And, southern Ohio is home to some of the largest and best tasting wild pawpaw patches on the planet.   In addition to being a surpsisingly delicious fruit, the pawpaw is super nutritious and has a long history, but unfortunately it’s still a fruit you won’t find on your grocer’s shelf, or even at most farmers markets.

Our Native American ancestors enjoyed pawpaws, spreading them as far as Kansas. In 1541 the expedition of Conquistator Hernando de Soto recorded Native Americans growing and eating pawpaws in the Mississippi Valley. And even though white settlers had to clear the pawpaw tree to create farmable land, they savored the pawpaw, often the only fresh fruit available nearby.

The fruit has had a presidential following.   George Washington’s favorite dessert was chilled pawpaw.   Thomas Jefferson had pawpaws on his Monticello estate. And when he was minister to France in 1786, he had seeds shipped to friends there, probably to impress them with something exotic from America.   Lewis and Clark wrote how much they loved pawpaws in their journals. At one point in 1806 during their expedition, pawpaws sustained them when their provisions ran low.

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John James Audubon’s yellow-billed cuckoo on a pawpaw branch.

The pawpaw’s scientific name is asimina triloba, and is part of the family of fruits known as custard apples.   It has a wonderful creamy texture and a tropical flavor, surprisingly contrary to its non-tropical deciduous growing climate.   It’s about the size of a small baked potato and it’s outside is greenish-blackish. It’s flesh is pale to bright yellow and contains a network of glossy, dark brown, inedible seeds, about the size of a normal lima bean.   It’s flavor is fresh and jolting, downright tropical.       It’s been described to have a flavor of that’s a cross of mango-citrus-and banana, with a subltle kick of yeasty, floral aftertaste, similar to the settled solids in an unfiltered wheat beer. That’s funny because there’s about 10 Ohio breweries who use the pawpaw in special beers brewed for the 17th Annual Ohio Paw Paw Festival coming up the weekend of September 11 at Lake Snowden near Albany, Ohio.   It’s about a three hour drive from Cincinnati. In addition to beers, its pulp, like that of the the banana or a persimmon, makes delicious pies, cakes, and cookies.   It’s also used to make custards, ice creams, and a whole list of sauces.

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Our own Listerman Brewery across from Xavier University has flavored their Peanut Butter Stout with pawpaws for the upcoming festival.   Other brews are Weasil Boy’s alliterative (Zanesville, Ohio) Pawpaw Pale Ale, Marietta Brewing’s (Marietta, Ohio) Putnam Pawpaw Ale, Jackie O’s (Athens Ohio) Pawpaw Wheat, Buckeye Brewing’s (Cleveland, Ohio) Pawpaw Pale Ale, Thirsty Dog’s (Akron, Ohio) Belgian Pawpaw Saison, Little Fish’s (Athens, Ohio) un-hopped, sour Rheinheitsgewhat Pawpaw Ale, NorthHigh’s (Columbus) Quaker’s Delight Wheat infused with cucumber and pawpaw, and Black Box’s (Westlake, Ohio) Belgian Pawpaw Oatmeal Rye

The list of pawpaw food at the Ohio festival is extensive: pawpaw chutney, smoothies, pizza, curry puffs, pawpaw chocolate mousse, pice de gallo, muffins, mayo, mustard, noodles, cassava, waffles, whipped cream, barbecue, and even Egyptian pawpaw goat curry with rice.

From a nutritional standpoint, food scientist Rob Brannon of the Ohio State University, has published a paper that claims the antioxidant content of pawpaws to be fairly high.     A pawpaw’s antioxidant content is equivalent to that of a cranberry or a cherry, he states.

But why is it that we don’t see pawpaws in our grocer’s produce counter? Well they don’t fit the big agri-business model.   They bruise easily and they have a short shelf life. So, they’re not a profitable fruit to sell. There’s a scattered community of scientists and horticulturists who are researching to see if that could change. But then, they’d probably have to engineer the flavor out of this wonderful fruit, and it wouldn’t be worth the change.

So, although pawpaw may never become the next POM wonderful, it’s an exciting place to be right now.     And, all you have to do it take a bite.

Eating to the Seasons and the ‘Third Plate’: Making a Thinner America

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I saw a statistic last week that the average American consumes something like 170 pounds of refined sugar annually, nearly 50 times more now than we did 100 years ago!   In 1915, the average American consumed 4 pounds of sugar per year, and they were significantly thinner.    You can go to any historic theatre of that time period and see evidence of how much smaller our behinds were!

I think that gets close to the cause of the obesity problem in America, but not to the root.   Because big agri-businesses have modified our produce for size rather than taste, processed foods are being added with more refined sugars and more salts to make up for this loss of flavor.   The advent of refrigeration and air shipping has made us demand to have any type of produce at any time of the year, regardless of growing season, and despite flavor. And, that has made big farms produce for shelf stability over flavor.   We’ll buy the biggest modified strawberries, but do they really taste as good as smaller, more organically grown ones?   Do we really need to have ‘fresh’ strawberries in the dead of winter?

In the days of our grandparents, before refrigeration, they ‘ate to the season.’ You only had strawberries during the early to late spring, and tomatoes during the mid to late summer.   And, you didn’t have absurdly large produce that doesn’t taste near as good as it should or was intended in its naturally occurring, unGMO’d, non-chemically treated form.   What produce was meant to be kept further out in the growing season, was put in root cellars, canned, or pickled for preservation.   Even the pickled stuff was better, done naturally without preservatives so that the natural probiotics stayed.

My grandparents taught me how to eat to the season.   Even though they were city dwellers, they had a connection to farms. They went weekly to the local farmers’ markets to get their food.   My grandfather’s cousins still operated the 1880’s farm their shared English Yeoman grandfather started out in the ‘Kentucky country’.   In the Spring, Grandma would get their strawberries and make the most amazing fresh strawberry shortcake with her homemade baking powder biscuits.     It beats the hell out of the packaged jelly and manufactured lady fingers version with which most are familiar.   They’d get bushels of tomatoes too in the summer, which meant stewed tomatoes, chili and anything else Grandma could put them into.   But she’d have so many she’d ‘put them up’, which meant she’d stew and freeze them for winter use.

When the produce wasn’t available they wouldn’t eat it so that when their season came up, it was something to look forward to and savor.   Americans probably wasted less produce too, when they ate to the season like this.

A friend of mine grew the spiciest arugala this year that I’ve ever tasted.   Arugala was meant to have a spicy kick – otherwise, we’d just eat iceburg lettuce.   Why is it that you can’t buy this type of arugala in the stores?   Because it’s been treated and grown for yield, not flavor.   Jim grew his in his backyard,  with nothing but soil and water – and no chemicals – the most high end organic arugala.

It has long been known that Posey county cantaloupes in southern Indiana are the best tasting in the country.   This is because of the loamy soil they’re grown in. They are one of two varieties of American cantaloupes – Eastern and Western.   The Western cantaloupes, however, are the ones you see in the supermarkets.   They are small to medium size, and have a green rind with pale netting.   They are grown for shipping over flavor and come from California and Mexico year-round. The Eastern melons are larger, plumper, softer and sweater. But they don’t ship as well and ar grown only in warm summer months in the Midwest.   So they only come in local farm markets and roadside stands until September, but they have the best flavor of any American melon.

When it came to meat, pork was only eaten in the colder months. Even goetta, a local pork-based grain sausage, was eaten only from Fall through Winter. It was never available in the summer months.     I am, however, happy that refrigeration made goetta a year round staple, but I digress.

So why is the Farm-to-table movement trending as a hot topic in food?   It’s a healthy alternative to the sugar-and salt-laden processed convenience foods we typically eat. And, it’s the way our skinnier and healthier ancestors ate, and the way our bodies were meant to be fed.  But the growth of the movement is not easy, because we’ve not set up the economic model to be supportive of small local organic farmers.

Go to any farmer’s market and ask any of the local farmers if they’ve been asked to breed or develop to flavor.   They’ll probably laugh at you.     Most producers grow to size and yield, never to taste.    And that’s because that’s where the money flows.   If we come up with innovative ways to support the more flavorful and healthful versions, now we’re on to something life changing.

Dan Berber, of New York’s Blue Hill, has been passionately and relentlessly trying to set up the economic model to support the Farm-to-Table movement for which he has been credited for starting in America.   He has developed whole farm cooking, for example to support good heirloom emmer wheat. In order to grow this type of wheat a New York Farmer, Klaas Martens, must grow mustard greens, beans, millet, and rye to prepare the soil for wheat. These crop rotators were mostly put into bag feed for animals or even discarded, and he just made more than break even to produce this wonderful wheat. So Barber changed his cooking to integrate the crop rotators to support the entire system that produced this wheat that he wanted. This mindset is truly what the sustainable farm-to table movement is about. It’s not just about picking hyper-local organic farmed products, it’s about creating a culture and an economy of eating to support the entire system. Barber calls this the ‘third plate.’

With the rise of craft breweries, as we’re seeing in Ohio, they could sustain the use of these formerly throw away barleys farmers like Martens are growing as rotators just to prepare the soil for the heirloom wheat.   And everybody wins.   The malter and brewers now has a local source of barley which he hasn’t had before, the brewer uses a local product, and even their spent grains can be used by local livestock farmers are feed. It’s a ‘soil-to-snout’ economy.

This shared model has built some historic products we’re familiar with.   The parmesan cheese market in Italy produced an excess of throw away whey. This was then fed to the pigs in the region, creating fatter, more tastier pigs that resulted in Proscuitto di Parma.   When French peasants wondered what to do with tough and inedible meat of roosters and old hens, they created the dish Coq au vain, which broke down the tough proteins by braising them slowly in red wine, another regional product.

Local chef Todd Kelley of Orchids at the Palm Court follows this model. Named American Culinary Institute’s Chef of the year, Todd sets up relationships with local farms to sustain healthy, organic products.  He’s even started a rooftop urban garden for their herbs and microgreens. Great news is that Kelley is part of a newly formed Ohio River Valley Local Chef’s Collaborative. I have high hopes that they can band together to take this idea of sustainable Farm-to-Table to help form an economy that supports our local organic farmers.

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It’s Hip to Be Square…. In Dayton, Ohio

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A recent Facebook friend’s post offered the opinion, “Why do some Ohio pizza makers cut their pizzas in squares.   It’s just wrong!”   This particular friend happens to be a native of Philadelphia, who was familiar with the thicker-crust, pie-shaped pizza slices of his youth. What he didn’t know is that the square cut-pizza, called the ‘hors d’oeuvres cut’ is a Dayton pizza thing that harkens back to 1953 and the Cassano Pizza family of Kettering, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton.

Now things have always happened a bit differently in Dayton. The Gem City, as it’s known, has a history of unbridled creativity and innovation.     Before Silicon Valley, there was the Miami Valley, which at the turn of the 19th century had more patents per capita than any other city in the U.S. Think of the Wright brothers, the cash register, and the electric starter for the automobile, among hundreds of other innovations from which the world at large benefitted.

One of these innovative ideas that arrived in Dayton from Italy – via New York City – was modified just a tad and became a regional culinary phenomenon: the square-cut pizza.   This phenom has since infiltrated Dayton’s neighbors to the northeast, Columbus; and southwest, Cincinnati, through the Donato’s pizza chain, founded in 1964 by Jim Grote, who took this idea and went wild.   Despite every reaction of fast food chains to conform to prevailing trends – Daytonians have clung to this unique interpretation of pizza, making it a recognizable local style.

The square-cut pizza of Dayton can be characterized by a few features: cracker thin – typically salty crust that’s sometimes dusted with cornmeal, very light sauce, and whopping, edge-to-edge toppings.   Most importantly, of course is that the pizza is cut into small, easy-to-eat squares.   If you look at a Dayton style pepperoni pizza, for example, you really can’t tell where the pepperoni ends and the crust begins. And, one Dayton-style chain, Marion’s has a distinctive sausage with fennel seed that they crumble onto the pizza.  Some call Marion’s an acquired taste. I call it pizza heaven.

So, unlike Pizza Hut and other national chains who have a big edge to their crust, that you can stuff with cheese and other items, Dayton-style  pizza is one flat, crispy sheet.

During the post War years in Dayton, Ohio, the Cassano family introduced their pizza to the area, serving it out of the back of their Donisi family grocery in Kettering. Vic Cassano, Sr. and his mother-in-law Caroline Donisi,at first had a rough time with customers to which pizza in the 1950s was still an exotic treat. Even though pizza came to New York City from the Naples region of Italy in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until after the war that it was brought to the Midwest, mostly by enterprising veterans who had seen it during their tours of duty coming through New York and Philadelphia.

When Vic Cassano did a bit of market research, he was told by women the one thing they didn’t like about pizza was that it was difficult to eat without looking foolish, or messing it all over you.  Think of the gloved ladies of the 1950’s with pillbox hats and tea dresses going out for pizza. So he devised the idea of cutting it into squares and it has been done that way ever since.

Another reason for the square-cut was given by Ron Holp, a one-time franchise operator of Cassano’s, who broke off in 1964 and founded Ron’s Pizza in Miamisburg, Ohio.   He said that early on, most Midwesterners didn’t know anything about pizza, so if you wanted to try it and tried a whole pie shaped slice and didn’t like it, you ruined that whole slice. If you tried a small square shaped piece, you could try a small bite before you dove in.     But who would NOT like a slice of pizza?   Scientific research has shown that people actually eat more when things are cut into smaller pieces – it’s kind of the psychology of “I can have ONE more small slice.”

Another reason for the square-cut slices given by Holp is the amount of toppings that they were putting on the pizzas.   If you picked up a pie shaped slice with the numerous toppings, they’d fall all over the place.   That seems to feed into the gloved ladies-who-lunch theory that Vic Cassano gives.

Another former Cassano’s franchisee, Marion Glass, took his lessons from Vic and opened his own operation, Marion’s Pizza, on Patterson Road in 1965.   He was the first pizza place to offer dining room seating, and his chains quickly became the most popular in Dayton.   Like in Cincinnati, Ohio, to the south, it’s first pizza to market, Pasquale’s, was quickly usurped in success and popularity by later comer, LaRosa’s.

The dining room experience spawned a unique opportunity for Glass. He hosted weekly cast parties for the Kenley Players who performed at Dayton’s Memorial Hall.   The Kenley stars frequently commented on the unique square-cut pizzas.  Phyllis McGuire, lead singer of the famed McGuire sisters, loved Marion’s pizza and the small square cut, she thought they would be perfect to serve as hors d’oeuvres at a party.  So, she ordered 36 large half-baked frozen pizzas and had them shipped to her home in Las Vegas and served Marion’s pizza at her party. Thus the nickname “hors d’oeuvre cut’ was born.

The Kenley players’ star power attracted other big names of the era to Marion’s: Joe Namath, Mickey Rooney, Barry Williams of the Brady Bunch, Tony Randall, and even one of my favorite comedians, Betty White.   Hundreds of celebrity photos can be seen at any Marion’s location as evidence of this star-studded history.

While the three pioneers were Cassano’s, Ron’s and Marion’s, Daytonians supported a number of other square cut pizza shops around the area – Giovanni’s Pizzeria in Fairborn (1953), Joe’s Pizzeria in Riverside (1959), Little York Tavern in Vandalia (1981), El Greco in North Dayton, Milano’s (1969), Hoagie’s Pizza in North Dayton (1969), Oregon Express (1976), amongst others who have come and gone.

While other styles of pizza have made their way into the Gem City, the square-cut pizza’s popularity has endured and thrived for more than 60 years as a testament to the unique Dayton innovation.

It’s All in the Red – Lexington Red Cole Slaw

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Still caught in my Low Country food craze, I learned about one more cole slaw unique to the Carolinas. I am fascinated by the number of different cole slaws in the small areas of Georgia and the Carolinas.   This cole slaw is from the Piedmont (central) and western area of the Carolinas.   In this area of the Western Carolinas they have a very distinct cole slaw called Lexington Red Cole Slaw.   It’s also called Barbeque Slaw or just Red Slaw.

The slaw was created for one very specific purpose – to dress the barbecued pork sandwiches of that area.   And it’s used as both a condiment and a side item.   As a sandwich condiment, it’s also used to top hot dogs and hamburgers.   As a side with barbecued meat, it is accompanied by Carolina hush puppies and black eyed peas on a plate.

The name is not so much about the color of the saw itself, than the color of its dominant ingredients – ketchup and hot sauce. In addition to its red ingredients, Lexington Slaw contains shredded white cabbage, apple cider vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper.   Of course there are some variations which include other ingredients like white onions, or dried mustard. It actually has more of a pinkish or orange look, as the vinegar dilutes the dominant red of the ketchup, but it does look different than your typical creamy mayonnaise or vinegar cole slaw.   Typically Texas Pete’s Red Hot Sauce is used, but Frank’s Red Hot can also be used, even though it’s a Yankee invented hot sauce.   Frank’s was created by the Frank Tea & Spice Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1930s.

Lexington Red Slaw is still picnic safe because it has no mayonnaise to spoil in the hot Carolina summers.   And, it’s always recommended to be made and refrigerated overnight so all the flavors have a chance to migrate into the cabbage.

Now there’s a contentious relationship between East and West Carolina barbeque. It all comes down to the tomato. Both contain pork, the Western region using only the shoulder, and it’s served in larger chunks , while the Eastern uses the whole pig, and chops it finely into small bits.   And both use a vinegar based sauce, although the Western region throws in ketchup. As a native Carolinian you have to pick – the vinegary, smoky East Carolina or the tomatoey, subtle West Carolina version.   The East coast version is much older, invented nearly 300 years ago during the early Colonial period of the 1600s, when English colonists were just beginning to inhabit the Low Country and the tomato was not prevalent in the area.

The first reference to the tomato in North America is in 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in South Carolina.   They may have been introduced from the Caribbean slave trade.   By the mid-1700s, they were being cultivated on some Carolina plantations.   But tomato based ketchup didn’t follow until about 1801, when it was first referenced in the American cookbook the Sugar House Book.

Ketchup was originally a Cantonese creation, of picked fish and spices, and didn’t contain any tomatoes.   The British explorers saw it in Malaysia and Singapore and brought it back to England, but they used mushrooms as the primary ingredient, rather than tomatoes. They brought it with them to the colonies, but it then morphed into a tomato based sauce, rather than the traditional mushroom based one.   Because it was a fish based sauce, originally even tomato based ketchup had anchovies in the mix, but by the mid-1850s, American ketchup had dropped the fishiness.

The first bottled ketchup in the US was made by Jonas Yerkes in 1837. Before that, it was made by local farmers or in the home.   It wasn’t until 1876 that the Heinz Company bottled and sold their ketchup, making it an American home staple.   But one more ingredient in Lexington slaw puts us at a later birthdate.   Hot sauce made from tobacco peppers was first made around 1868 in Louisiana, by Edmund McIllhenny.   So, it was probably around the American bicentennial in 1876 or even later that Lexington Red Slaw was born.   Unlike most Southern food items that are much older, this cole slaw can be called a food product of Southern Reconstruction.

There are now all different types of ketchup that you can use in a Lexington Red Slaw.   I myself would try using the German curry ketchup in the slaw to add something unique to the flavor, but the Piedmont area purists might not agree with my non-traditional upgrade!