If you’re new to the region or the local food scene, pawpaws may be new to you. With rising popularity in recent years, you may think these are a new trendy superfood or key to a new diet craze. We assure you, they are not. In reality, there’s a deep rooted link between Ohio’s soil and this strange fruit. So what exactly are pawpaws, where did they originate, and why does Ohio go nuts for them?
What is a Pawpaw?
Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are often confused with papayas. Pawpaws are known to be the largest fruit tree in North America. It’s the only tropical fruit of the Annonaceae family that is able to grow in this part of the world—yes, you read that right, we have a tropical fruit in Ohio! It’s ability to grow in forest-areas makes it harvestable throughout North America, specifically from southern Canada, to northern Florida, and every Midwest state in between.
The flavor of the pawpaw is described as very sweet with a strong aroma and flavors that are said to lie somewhere between a banana, pineapple, and pear. Typically, pawpaws are consumed raw, but they can also be included in breads, baked goods, and smoothies. They’re said to make a great substitute for mangos and bananas as well.
Ripe pawpaws last about two or three days at room temperature, but they can be refrigerated for about a week if the fruit is already ripe and up to three weeks if they’re under ripe. Pro tip, firm pawpaws don’t ripen well off the tree and over ripe fruits taste a little funny, so try to choose tree-ripened pawpaws when you can! Pawpaws also aren’t the showiest of fruits with a plain green skin that bruises easily, but don’t let that deter you, this fruit has had a wide and dedicated following for centuries.
Pawpaws have been recorded into history for generations. In fact, it’s 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-man’s 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 when 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 as 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 for fresh food along 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.”
The pawpaw, while once well known among our ancestors, fell out of favor when a more global and standardized food system took over our nation’s food after World War II. This is why the pawpaw seems to be a new and shiny Ohio gem as of recently. While not new, it’s surely new to a fresh generation of local food enthusiasts.
So, Where Can I Find Them?
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 year’s 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, you can find a vendor or two who grows and sells pawpaws! The season is very short so mark your calendar each year to begin the hunt in early September, and of course, stop by Countryside Farmers’ Market at Howe Meadow to find a whole variety of local fresh foods.