By Colleen Leonardi
Goldenrod is high and bright right now throughout Central Ohio, and according to author Andrew Moore in his James Beard Award-nominated book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit (2015) that means it’s time to hunt for pawpaws (Asimina triloba).
The pawpaw is the largest wild fruit native to America. Its texture is custard-like with a flavor somewhere between a banana and a mango, though some say it tastes like caramel, depending on the variety. It grows in what Moore illustrates as “The American Pawpaw Belt,” which includes a region of 26 states, stretching from southern Pennsylvania all the way across to Missouri and all the way up into Illinois and southern Michigan. In 1916 the American Genetics Association conducted a contest to find the best pawpaw species in the United States. Pawpaws were submitted from over 230 sites all over the U.S., and the final prize-winning pawpaw originated from Ironton in Lawrence County along the southern belt of our state.
Ohio is a mecca for the pawpaw.
Like a bee to honey, Moore’s affinity for this delectable fruit takes him on a journey across the pawpaw belt into the woods, forests, riverbeds and orchards to learn as much as he can about this “forgotten fruit.” Along the way he meets rural folks, gardeners, growers, farmers, even Chris Chmiel of Integration Acres in Athens, as Moore sits down with them to draw out whatever expertise, folklore, recipes or medicinal knowledge they have to share.
The fruit’s wild nature contributes to it being lost to American cuisine. You have to pick and eat a pawpaw right when it’s ripe. Too late and its skin turns black; too soon and it will make you sick. If you live or forage near a pawpaw patch, then you know what Moore, and other pawpaw fanatics, are driven by. Otherwise, the fruit is somewhat exotic and hard to find. Like other wildcrafted foods, such as ramps or ginseng, the pawpaw likes to root and settle away from the maddening crowd, and so you have to be a learned devotee over time to savor its sweet promise.
While Moore details research from a select group of experts trying to domesticate the pawpaw (as they did the blueberry, which was once a wild fruit), it still eludes the needs of the marketplace. The demand for the pawpaw is there. Chefs, home cooks, little old ladies who remember tasting it way back when and more want it. When Moore visits farmers markets it’s hard to find the pawpaw, and when he does it’s often sold out. Yet for some reason we don’t have acres of pawpaw trees like we do blueberry bushes, and Moore endeavors to find out why.
Thus, Moore’s book becomes more than an ode to our native fruit and offers an example of how Americans have overlooked, and even wiped out, traditional foodways in the wild woods of America with the rise of industrial agriculture. Moore’s look back is more than nostalgia—it’s a call to look forward with a renewed vision of how we can imbue our future with pawpaws for their cancer-fighting compounds, culinary delights and more. Moore concludes: “If Americans want pawpaws, folks will need to start setting them out in orchards, and growing them like any other commercial fruit.”
So if you don’t feel like braving the goldenrod this fall in search of a pawpaw patch, pick up Moore’s book, which is just as golden. It’s a hearty read for the pawpaw lover, organic gardener, permaculturist, farmer, herbalist, chef and forager. The foreword by culinary historian Michael W. Twitty is a delicious read all on its own.