In late summer and early fall, when the goldenrod blazes across the fields, a small deciduous tree in the understory of forests, especially along rivers, produces a fruit called the pawpaw, which seems to have no business in North America. It tastes like a “tropical” flavored Hubba Bubba bubble gum, with a hint of musky funk. People say that it tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana. It doesn’t, really, it just tastes like something that would grow where mangoes and bananas grow. People also seem to enjoy bringing up that it is a relative of the custard apple, which has never done me any good.
The third Foxfire book, which is dedicated to chronicaling Southern Appalachian culture, states: “One has to develop a taste for pawpaws.” And goes on to quote an unidentified source relating that they “feel like sweet potatoes in your mouth” and that they “taste somewheres between a banana and a persimmon.” These descriptions do more to point out how difficult it is to describe a new taste than they do to accurately identify it.
The fruits are kidney shaped, and they vary in size from about the length of your thumb to the size of your whole hand. They are pale green on the tree. They grow in little bunches, like hands. When ripe, it’s as if they cannot wait to drop. A shake of the tree will send them tumbling—which is why the song goes “Picking up pawpaws, putting them in the basket, way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.”
Because the tree sends out runners, cloning itself out, they do grow into patches. They take a while—up to eight years—to produce fruit, and they never get very big. I’ve never seen a pawpaw tree I couldn’t wrap my hands around. They hide under the big hardwoods that grow from the Great Lakes down to Louisiana, and from the coast to Kansas.
Pawpaws are native to North America—they have been here since giant sloths meandered amongst the ferns. They were a vital part of Native American diets. Andrew Moore wrote a book about the fruit, in which we learn that the Iroquois “dried them and mixed them in sauces, as well as cooking them into corn cakes. Since corn is low in digestible niacin, Iroquoian cuisine demonstrates a beneficial pairing: Pawpaws are incredibly high in this particular nutrient.”
They were also a regular part of the Appalachian country diet. (Which is why they’re in the Foxfire book.)
Testifying to their once central role in the American diet, there are many, many places named “Paw Paw” and quite a few other places named after old native words for people who eat pawpaws, or places where they grow. The Alcovy River, in Georgia, for example, is named after a creek name for a pawpaw patch.
They have been, however, largely forgotten.
And most folks have never eaten one. Which is a mistake.
Once you see the first pawpaw, you will begin to see them everywhere. They grow with abundance, and people aren’t protective of them. Asking around for where people find their chanterelles will get you nowhere, but I have never met anyone who tried to hush up a pawpaw patch, which is part of the pleasure of foraging for them. Ramps, morels—these things are hard to find. A pawpaw patch advertises itself. You’ll smell the sweet funk and sugar. During the period that the trees are productive—which is now—you’ll be able to fill up your basket with all the pawpaw you could need without making a dent in a producing patch.
At home, they will fill up your kitchen with their bubble gum perfume while they ripen. I like them when the skins have blackened and the flesh is as soft as custard, although some folks like to eat them a little earlier.
Foxfire suggests adding them to bread, or making something called a “flump” with beaten egg white (no thanks, I’m good, as the kids say), as well as baking the fruit and serving it with cream. I like the pawpaw raw.
As each of my pawpaws blackened up like an overripe banana, I would peel it and mush out the seeds and put the pulp—already basically pureed—into a container in the freezer. When I had about a pint of pawpaw mush, I made a rich vanilla ice cream base and churned it in. It was fantastic and distinct.
One lone pawpaw ripened on the counter, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I wanted something new, something that would leverage the funky sweetness of the fruit. Inspiration struck—where else—via the chicken wing. I smashed up the last lonely fruit, adding a couple of cloves of garlic, a hefty plug of fish sauce, a teaspoon of soy sauce, a teaspoon of sugar, a couple of lime wedges, a big squirt of Sriracha, and a tablespoon of Shan Xu mature vinegar. (This is just a stroll through my pantry, really, I’d substitute most of those things for any other similar ingredient.) Whirring that mix with an immersion blender I drizzled in a tablespoon or so of sesame oil. The result was fantastic. Bright and sweet and funky, the Pan-Asian mash up had the perfect balance of sweet and hot, deep and sharp. The pawpaw gave body to the sauce, and it stuck right to the wings, which I’d simply roasted in the oven.
“This sauce,” said my wife, “is the bomb.”
Which is good enough for me any day.