I have been minorly obsessed lately with pawpaws.
My particular friend and I were visiting friends Luke and Keveney at Redwing Farm in West Virginia when Keveney mentioned pawpaws in passing; her family grows apples commercially and she mentioned something about someone mentioning pawpaws (this is how my brain works, which is why I write everything down. #Senile).
You know those times when something just lodges itself in your brain and you can’t shake it loose? It’s like a tiny little worm, wiggling its way into your brain, burrowing deep.
For me, this was the pawpaw conversation.
It also doesn’t help when you become a bit like a dog with a bone about it and the little worm in your brain turns into a minor obsession that isn’t really able to be alleviated because the thing you are obsessed about is not really anywhere you can physically put your hands on it. Not yet anyway. So you think about it and roll it over in your mind and in the meantime summer turns to fall and you become aware that, at least for pawpaws, TIME IS RUNNING OUT.
Pawpaws are a very, very strange fruit. They are the largest indigenous fruit tree in North America, but they are tropical. They are the only tropical fruit tree found in a temperate climate, and the tree is deciduous. Harvest time is short, from mid-August to the end of October. They are native to 26 states from the Great Lakes to the Florida panhandle (and even now in Medford, Oregon).
In addition to being very confused about where they should actually be growing in the world, pawpaws are alternately temperamental as hell and ridiculously easy to grow. They can go from rock hard to ripe in 24 hours and once ripe have an on-the-counter shelf life of only a day or two (or a week in the ‘fridge).
But pawpaws thrive in low sunlight and are often found underneath the canopy, which makes them an easy harvest (they can even be maintained as dwarf trees for easiest picking, as the largest commercial cultivator of pawpaws right here in Maryland – Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard – does). The evidence of their ease of cultivation is apparent in the huge groves of trees located along the Susquehanna and Alleghany rivers as well as by the two pawpaw seedlings I currently have growing in pots in my backyard (which were germinated accidentally by a landscaper I met at the Hampden farmer’s market here in Baltimore). Most people who experience pawpaws do so quite accidentally, stumbling upon a grove of wild trees and sampling the fruit (which it should be said is generally a stupid thing to do, randomly sampling something that looks like fruit. #BeCarefulOutThere).
The history of the pawpaw finds First People using pawpaw’s fibrous branches for rope, Lewis and Clark relying on them for sustenance when their food ran out in 1806, and Thomas Jefferson cultivating them at Monticello. John James Audubon perched his yellow-billed cuckoo on a branch laden with pawpaws, and zebra swallowtail butterflies eat their leaves exclusively.
All well and good. History is lovely, but what do they taste like?
To find out, I headed to Two Boots Farm in Hampstead, Maryland. There is a pawpaw festival in Ohio that sounded like it could be interesting, but I didn’t particularly feel like driving six and a half hours to chase down a taste – I will never be Anthony Bourdain (which is good because, turns out, he has become something of a massive douche and pretentious fuck. So there’s that). Two Boots is located just 40 minutes from where I am currently typing this, and their little festival (partnered with Slow Food Baltimore) offered tastings and a tour of their orchard, plus the opportunity to purchase some pawpaws.
I sampled five varieties of pawpaw at Two Boots: Shenandoah, Allegheny, Susquehanna, PA Golden, and a small unknown variety called Wildcard (tasted like bubblegum).
And to be perfectly honest, which I always try to be, I am not sure how I feel about them.
Their texture may be off-putting to some. The fruits, which range in size from the two-inch Wildcard variety to the much larger four+ inch Shenandoah, have a strange custard-like texture (which is why they are often referred to incorrectly as a “custard apple” which has an entirely different botanical name altogether). This texture is broken up by large seeds that don’t separate cleanly from the flesh (I had visions of choking on the seed as we sampled – the flesh clings to the seed like mango strands cling to the pit and I could see myself inhaling a pit).
The taste is like nothing I have ever tasted before. It is most often compared to a cross between a mild-flavored mango and a banana (hence the nickname “Hoosier banana” or “Indiana banana,”which makes me laugh and think about sex in the Midwest, which may or may not be a laughing matter). I found this comparison to be true, with one additional sensation: astringency. If the pawpaw is not completely ripe, the closest part of the peel offers the slight sensation of astringency, as if you have mistakenly licked an anti-perspirant-slathered armpit.
This is not the sensation you want to experience in fruit.
But there is something deeply intriguing about the pawpaw for me, and it wasn’t until I purchased six pounds (three pounds each of the Shenandoah and Allegheny) that I figured out why.
It’s not the taste or the rarity or the fact that preparing pawpaws is a total pain in the ass (see below).
As I looked into the history behind this fruit, I suddenly remembered that my cousin Teddy used to sing “Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch” to me as a child (when I went by “Suzie” instead of Suzannah). Theodore Litovitz was a cousin but many decades older than me and a true genius. Growing up, he was the only person in my family to speak to me as if what I had to say mattered; he asked deep questions and listened when I answered, even when I was young. Maybe it had to do with the fact that we didn’t see him often, but he never seemed annoyed by what I had to say, never treated me like I was foolish or childish or in the way.
I remember sitting with Teddy on the lawnchairs that looked out over the Chesapeake Bay at his house in Annapolis, talking about school and watching the sunset. He always had time for me. He always listened. I always felt heard.
But he was mischievous and often a pain in the ass himself. Once when I was around six or seven, he told me about a magical chocolate bar he had at his house, one that grew back with every bite. It was late when he started this story, and we were leaving his house after Passover seder for a long drive back home. Thinking I had found a new permanent home with people who not only understoood me but would also feed me what was generally forbidden otherwise and not wanting to leave behind a special article of clothing I had just purchased, I turned to my mother and said, “Bring my long dress.”
That was probably the longest car ride home ever.
So Teddy and the pawpaws and being just slightly troublesome are deeply woven together in a way that makes the nature of my obsession over pawpaws more understandable. As I started to work with them, I found myself slowing down a bit, as one must when dealing with this fruit. Something about working with an ingredient that holds a deeply personal connection as well as a connection to the history of the nation in which I live made the experience of pawpaws more profound for me.
But pawpaws, as with many things worth doing and as previously mentioned, are a bit of a pain in the ass.
Choosing the proper one comes first: pawpaws are ripe when they separate from the tree with no resistance. Their flesh gives slightly, and as they ripen the flesh begins to deepen in color. Of the Shenandoah and the Alleghany varieties, I found the former easiest to work with as they are larger and offer more pulp.
Flavor-wise, pawpaws work best with tropical, mild flavors. In the three recipes I made, I paired them with pineapple, coconut, and fresh corn (the ice cream below, pawpaw fritters with fresh corn, and pawpaw-pineapple chia seed pie). The subtle flavor of pawpaws changes somewhat when they are heated, and I found that cold applications made for the best clean pawpaw flavor.
I started each recipe with a basic puree that can be used immediately or frozen. This puree used six Shenandoah pawpaws and the juice of one lime (lime prevents oxidation). Slice the pawpaws in half and remove the seeds. Place the pulp and the lime juice in a food processor and process until smooth. Press through a sieve, then use immediately or freeze in one-cup portions. Makes two and a half cups of puree.
I did also make a puree with the Allegheny pawpaws, but the same three pounds of fruit yielded less than two cups of puree. Best to eat these in hand.
My favorite application thus far was the ice cream. This ice cream has a subtle, delicate flavor that is not overshadowed by any one of the ingredients, which allows the pawpaws’ complexity to shine through. Plus, it’s easy, which makes the work to get the puree seem less.
Pawpaw Ice Cream With Toasted Cashews
1 cup pawpaw puree
1 can unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
splash of vanilla
1/2 cup of chopped cashews, toasted and lightly salted
Combine all ingredients except for the cashews in a large bowl and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is smooth.
Place in ice cream machine and process according to directions.
In the last five minutes of churning, add the toasted cashews and allow them to mix in completely.
Full disclosure: I cannot resist a small bowl of this before it freezes completely. It’s like a milkshake rather than straight-up ice cream. I also like to place this between two gluten-free graham crackers for an ice cream sandwich.
As I worked with them pawpaws changed from an obsessive curiosity to something that connected me to someone I loved dearly and miss terribly. Which foods connect you to a time, place, or person?