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.

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