Before starting my internship at Countryside, I had absolutely ZERO clue what a pawpaw looked like, and I had only ever heard of them when they were referenced in the Disney movie The Jungle Book. Come to find out, there’s actually a deep rooted link between Ohio’s soil and this strange fruit. So what exactly is a pawpaw, where did they originate, and why is there a whole festival in Ohio dedicated to them?
What is a Pawpaw?
Photo by OSU CFAES
Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) often confused with papayas, in known to be the largest fruit in North America. It grows on trees, and is the only tropical fruit of the Annonaceae family that is able to grow in this part of the world. It’s ability to grow in forest-areas makes it harvestable throughout North America, specifically from Southern Canada, to the Northern Florida, and every midwest state in between.
The flavor of the pawpaw is described as very sweet, with a pungent aroma, with flavors that are said to lie somewhere between a banana, pineapple, and pears. Typically, pawpaws are consumed raw, but they can also be included in breads, baked goods, & smoothies. They’re said to make a great substitute for mangos and bananas as well.
Pawpaws have been recorded into history for centuries. In fact, it is rumored that U.S. president George Washington was a fan of the fruit, and that Lewis and Clark ate pawpaws during their expedition. During the great depression, pawpaws were called the “poor-mans banana”, since they were cheaper and more accessible than bananas during this rough time. But who first discovered pawpaws, and were they always called by this funny name?
History of Pawpaws
Photo by The Decolonial Atlas
The earliest written recording of people in North America consuming pawpaws dates all the way back to 1541, Spanish traveler Hernando De Soto was introduced to the fruit by Native American’s who were cultivating the crop near the Mississippi River. However, pawpaws have been a staple in Native American diets since far before this written documentation.
Specifically, the Shawnee tribe was known to have a special connection to this fruit. In fact, their calendar featured an entire month dedicated to pawpaws, which they called “asimi”. As seen in the picture above, many different Native American tribes had pawpaws incorporated into their diets, and each one had a special name that they gave to the fruit to distinguish it from the others.
The pawpaw has provided a great deal of sustenance to both the natives, as well as settlers in North America, as many who were traveling through relied on finding forest fruits to keep them alive during their journey.
American author James A. Little (1905) once said that “we can never realize what a great blessing the pawpaw was to the first settlers while they were clearing the great natural forest and preparing to build cabins. Planting fruit trees was rather an experiment for a number of years. The pawpaw and a few other wild fruits of less value, were all their dependence so far as fruit was concerned” (Owen Native Foods).
So, where can I find them?
Photo by Explore Hocking Hills
Unfortunately, pawpaws are a pretty tough find, since they’re not typically sold in grocery stores. However, lucky for us Ohioans, not only do we have pawpaw connections through local farmers’ markets, but there’s also a whole festival in Albany, Ohio that’s dedicated to them!
Every September in Albany near Lake Snowden, the town hosts the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival, which features cooking demonstrations, contests to see who presents the best pawpaw, eating contests, wagon rides, and so much more! There are also tons of vendors and food trucks, selling both fresh pawpaws and pawpaw-inspired dishes. Although this years festival has come to a close, it’s always a good idea to prepare for next year and get involved with the pawpaw community!
Here at Countryside, our farmers’ market has one vendor, Rainbow Gardens, LLC, who grows and sells pawpaws. The season is very short so come get them while you still can at Countryside Farmers’ Market at Howe Meadow! (Saturday, September 25th is the last market they will have pawpaws available)