Pawpaw – a forgotten tropical fruit in the middle of America

It’s a mild, sunny September Sunday, when our friend, Connor, takes us for a trip at the border of Maryland and West Virginia. The goal is to look for wild pawpaw fruit (and no, this is not papaya we’re talking about…) At a certain point, we take a detour from the forest trail and deliberately slink off into a nearby gully. The place is full of neat, little trees that are skinny and have long, wrinkled leaves. Looking carefully, we can see bunches of inconspicuous, green fruit. They remind us of mangoes, only smaller. The color of the fruit is not different from the leaves and, at a glance, it’s easy to miss them. Once picked, though, they reveal yellow, creamy insides with big brown seeds, all the while tempting with an exotic smell. So we break them open with our hands and eat the creamy pulp, suck on pits and spit them out when satisfied. The taste’s sweet, almost sensual, extraordinary at these latitudes. It brings back memories of Asia and super-sweet fruit with creamy, custard-like insides. There’s also a tone of something fermented, smelly, reminiscent of the huge jack-fruits and odoriferous durians.

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This adventure began with a festival organized by Michael Judd — a passionate enthusiast of ecology, permaculture and edible landscapes — that aims to raise awareness among Americans of something that basically grows in their backyards, yet is largely overlooked. We’ve met Michael several weeks previous, when looking for something interesting to do in our area. At that time, he was finishing his straw-bale house and we came as volunteers to help out with building the gray water system. After work, Michael showed us around his garden and pointed out the slim pawpaw trees growing there, bearing, then, tiny pawpaw fruit. “Have you ever tried this?”, he asked, and we responded in the negative. So, he invited us to the festival. There, we found out that this indigenous fruit is mostly unknown among the guests. Just like us, they’re trying different varieties of pawpaw for the first time in their lives. How did this came to be? Maybe because the fruit is delicate, with a fragile outside layer that easily bruises and cannot be easily kept for long periods making it difficult to distribute. Furthermore, large seeds and soft, nearly liquidy pulp, do not make consumption easy. Finally, the progress of civilization made tradition of foraging almost extinct. People just don’t go to the forest to forage for food anymore. At least they seemed not to go, because seemingly pawpaw is having a revival: in a local organic market we found a pound of wild pawpaws sells for $20..

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The festival, even though it was not widely publicized, has a great turn out. We help with the laborious task of getting the seeds out, which are later washed and cleaned and saved for the next planting season. Pawpaws like to grow in floodplains and at the edges of forests because they need sunlight to bear fruit. But they can be successfully grown in gardens, too — Michael being an example of a grower. The fruit on his trees get more sunlight then their wild brethren and thus produce bigger fruit. We try preserves made on the spot: Connor is in charge of a large wok filled with pawpaw pulp, soon-to-be jam. Ashley, Michael’s wife, and other volunteers, are making ice-cream together, while his mom has to drive to the store to get additional cartons of heavy cream. Pawpaw can also be used in cakes, and there even are beers aromatized with the fruity pulp.

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After our little escapade, we made delicious ice cream with heavy cream and lots of egg yolks. I managed to take a quick photo just before Marcin devoured the final few scoops.  And we have to unabashedly admit that our frosty creation turned out even better than what we had at the festival!

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