Reconnecting with Pawpaws, America’s Forgotten Fruit

A new book delves into the long history of the best American fruit you never tasted

Food Features America

If you’ve never heard of the pawpaw fruit, you’re not alone. Believe it or not, the large, tropical fruit is native to North America, and the trees still grow wild in clusters along some riverbanks. Although pawpaws have a long history and a cult following, they haven’t quite made it into the produce mainstream. Andrew Moore caught the pawpaw bug after learning about the mysterious fruit and, more importantly, tasting it. This led to much foraging, research, and travel as he wrote his new book, Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit. Paste talked to Moore about this unlikely American fruit, and why you might be hearing it’s rhythmic name more often in the future.

Paste: Can you describe pawpaws for those of us not lucky enough to have eaten one?

AM: Pawpaws are often described as tasting like a cross between a mango and a banana, with a custard-like texture. It’s truly a tropical flavor and texture—unlike anything else you’ll encounter in our American woods. And as a pawpaw ripens, its mild flavor intensifies, becoming sweeter and more caramel-like. As I’ve eaten more pawpaws—including a wide variety of named cultivars—I’ve had pawpaws that taste like melon, vanilla custard, coconut, and a host of other flavors.

Unripe pawpaws, hanging from the trees, strongly resemble green mangoes. The fruits’ floral and sweet and, yes, tropical scent, comes on as the fruit ripens. Occasionally fruit will turn yellow. Finally, if a pawpaw has dropped to the ground, or once it’s sitting on your kitchen counter, bruised fruit will blacken to various shades of gray and purple, yet its pulp remains edible.

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Paste: Where can they be found?

AM: Wild pawpaws can be found in approximately 26 eastern States, from the Atlantic to Nebraska, and from Louisiana to Ontario, Canada. But in recent years, gardeners and small farmers have begun to push those boundaries, and cultivated pawpaws can now be found in California, Oregon, the upper Midwest and New England. (And I should mention eastern and western Europe, China, and now Korea.)

Paste: You write about the long history of pawpaws in your book—what stands out to you?

AM: Pawpaws do have a long history. They were here long before humans arrived—up to 56 million years ago—and were eaten and dispersed by the continent’s now-extinct megafauna. Native Americans ate pawpaws and cooked or stored them in a variety of ways, but those preparations are now largely lost to history. Pawpaws were also eaten and encountered by the earliest European explorers, from Hernando de Soto and the Jamestown settlers, to Lewis and Clark and Daniel Boone. They were eaten on the Appalachian frontier, by escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, and during the Civil War pawpaws sustained both Union and Confederate soldiers.

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Paste: Were pawpaws domesticated on any notable level? What about now?

AM: Attempts have been made to domesticate—or better, to cultivate—the pawpaw throughout the past century. For various reasons, those attempts didn’t get very far. More recently, beginning with the pioneering work of Neal Peterson in the late 1970s, pawpaws have entered the long process of cultivation and domestication. Peterson’s pawpaws are among the best tasting, largest fruits anyone is likely to encounter. Meanwhile, the work of Kentucky State University, the North American Pawpaw Growers Association, and amateur plant breeders continues. Pawpaws—as a domesticated, commercial fruit—now have a solid foundation.

Paste: Why aren’t pawpaws a popular fruit now?

AM: When Americans stopped going to the woods for food, they stopped knowing about pawpaws. So as our food became more industrial, more processed, and more global, pawpaw became a footnote, and for many, a relic. Of course, that’s not the full story. In some parts of the country, Americans never stopped eating or knowing about pawpaws—particularly older, rural Americans. In my travels, researching this book, I spoke with older Americans who continued to harvest pawpaws each year, and some who grew them in their own yards. We seem to be in a cultural moment now where Americans are returning to these older traditions with renewed interest, and foodways in particular. If this is a lasting interest, I think pawpaw might find a more sustained role in the future of American culture and cuisine.

Paste: Do you have any tips for finding pawpaws?

AM: If you have time to hunt pawpaws in the wild—and you happen to live in pawpaw country—you will generally find them growing along creeks and streams. Otherwise, it doesn’t hurt to ask at your local farmers’ market. More and more small farms are adding pawpaws. And occasionally, farmers have wild pawpaws growing on their property. If they know you’re interested, they might pick you a basket.

Paste: What’s your favorite way or ways to enjoy pawpaws?

AM: Fresh, cut in half, with a spoon.

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Andy Moore, with pawpaws

Laurel Randolph is a food and lifestyle writer hailing from Tennessee and living in Los Angeles. She enjoys cooking, baking and candlestick making. Tweet at her face: @laurelrandy.

Main photo by Ketzirah Lesser & Art Drauglis CC BY-SA
Cut pawpaw photo by Samara Linnell
Author photo by Jonathan Yahalom

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