Given the growth in American food culture over the last decade, it seems unlikely that a tropical fruit growing in our own backyard could remain relatively unknown. But the pawpaw, a fruit native to parts of the South and Midwest, never made the transition to a domesticated crop, let alone an Instagram staple like avocados and acai bowls.
In his new book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, writer Andrew Moore aims to raise the fruit’s profile outside its native “Pawpaw Belt.” After first tasting a wild Pawpaw in the Ohio woods, Moore conducted a deep dive into the history of the pawpaw and the community that still surrounds it, emerging with a thoroughly researched—and thoroughly entertaining—book as a result.
This week, we called up Moore to talk about the pawpaw, what its persistent obscurity says about American consumption habits, and where in the country curious readers can find pawpaw gelato.
All photos courtesy Andrew Moore
Given that the pawpaw remains obscure, how would you describe it to someone who’s never seen, tasted, or heard of them before?
One of my friends recently described it as nature’s creme brulee. It’s commonly described as a cross between a banana and a mango, and that description gets at the tropical flavor of the fruit. It’s a way to indicate that this temperate, North American fruit actually tastes a lot like tropical fruit.
What surprised you about the history of the pawpaw once you began researching it?
Just that it was a part of life for everyday people throughout the country. Pretty much wherever pawpaws grew, people ate and interacted with it, and they would go and get it each fall. Learning that it was very much a common fruit, particularly for rural people and farmers. Furthermore, as I traveled, I found people who never forgot the pawpaw, and never stopped picking. Some of the people who would go and look for it each year were younger, others were in their eighties or nineties.
“The pawpaw is commonly described as a cross between a banana and a mango. It’s nature’s creme brulee.”
What is it that made this food disappear from the cultural conversation?
In the past century—particularly starting in the middle of the last century—we’ve stopped eating a lot of things. Our diets became pretty homogenous and industrial, dictated by what’s available at the supermarket. The pawpaw’s not the only thing we stopped eating. There are so many things that have faded from our seasonal diets. That’s a big part of it, this idea that it was a wild food—and it was abundant! We didn’t need to grow it in orchards to get it. We could just go to the woods. When we stopped doing that, we stopped eating the pawpaw. It’s not the only one [wild food we stopped eating]; there are so many things: native persimmons, hickory nuts, black walnuts. Lots of wild berries and grains. The pawpaw just happens to be the biggest tropical relative that’s in our woods.
Why do you think the pawpaw still hasn’t been widely cultivated in the States, given fads for more international fruits like acai?
At the Pawpaw Festival this weekend, Gary Paul Nabhan was talking about how, around the world, diets are becoming more simplified and similar. But in America, our diets are actually diversifying at great rates. It’s this return to heirloom foods and the work of seed savers—the traditional foodways—that are resurfacing. Things like quinoa or acai. Quinoa, for example, has a long history of cultivation, so we can latch onto that as American consumers.Thirty years ago, we didn’t eat as many avocados as we do now, but there was an industry in Central and South America that we could tap into. With the pawpaw, no one was doing that. It was something we had to go to the woods to get, because there were no orchards of pawpaw. Now that we’re aware of it, or at least the broader American public is aware of it, we can go look for it. And it’s there, waiting for us.
You mention in the book that you prefer pawpaws eaten fresh, but do people cook with it? If so, what?
Yes, it was primarily eaten fresh—it’s very sweet, almost a dessert on its own. But people also made breads with it. You can do with a pawpaw what you can do with a banana, so pawpaw breads, pawpaw pies, and also pawpaw ice cream are really good. I’m seeing that around the country—various creameries and ice cream shops are making their own pawpaw ice creams, everywhere from Michigan to West Virginia. I was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and there was a pawpaw gelato. So people are experimenting with it.