Pawpaw fruit is a plump tropical tasting fruit filled with custardy wonder. Steeped in Appalachian foodways and folk lore, pawpaws have almost become a forgotten culinary pleasure. We are trying to change that!
Call them “Custard Apples” call them “Kentucky Bananas” or call them “Hillbilly Mangos.” I don’t care. Just call me when pawpaws are ready to harvest! Joyce Pinson, Friends Drift Inn
- What Is A Pawpaw?
- Growing Pawpaws
- What Does a Pawpaw Taste Like?
- What Is Nutritional Value of Pawpaw?
- Pawpaw Uses and Pawpaw Recipe Ideas
- Pawpaw Fruit Substitutions
- Finding Pawpaws – Foraging, Farmers Market, Friends Drift Inn Jam
- Kentucky State University – The Pawpaw Epicenter
- Hatfield and McCoy Pawpaw Tree Incident
- Picking Up Pawpaws with Momma
The ripening of the largest native fruit signals falls in the Appalachians. Pawpaws, Asimina tribola, are found growing in colonies often along the creeks or pastures here in Kentucky and throughout much of the southeast, even reaching up into Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.
Pawpaw fruits fit comfortably into my hand; not much bigger than an apple. They are shaped like a potato, but much less dense.
Cut past the bitter green skin, and you will delight in the sweet custardy middle. The tobacco brown seeds are large; like lima beans.
Seeds are not edible – so do not go throwing them in your food processor!
On the tree most pawpaw fruits are a beautiful apple green but depending on the variety they can be white. As they ripen, they take on a yellow tinge. The shelf life of a pawpaw is short, perhaps three days.
You won’t find the fruits in most grocery stores, even though they’re native to North America. American Indians harvested them, and it’s been said George Washington liked to eat chilled pawpaw for dessert. But much of the pawpaw’s natural habitat was destroyed by development, and they’re not that easy to cultivate.
Indeed, growing pawpaws is quite a challenge.
Planted from seed, trees will take about seven years to fruit, according to Sherri Crabtree a pawpaw specialist at Kentucky State University. Because pawpaw fruits do not grow “true” from seed, there is no guarantee of the viability of the tree or a tasty and abundant harvest.
Foraging for pawpaws is a favorite fall activity here in the mountains. But if you want to grow your own pawpaw trees, it is wise to order saplings from a reputable nursery. For best results, order two different varieties to increase fruit yield through cross-pollination.
Saplings will yield quicker than pawpaw trees grown from seed and will be more consistent in flavor and size. For processing, larger pawpaws are preferred.
Elizabeth Matthews writes for the National Park service about the growing characteristics of pawpaws:
Pawpaw is self-incompatible, which means that pollen produced on a plant cannot pollinate flowers on the same plant. Instead, to produce fruit, a pawpaw flower must receive pollen from flowers on another tree, and sometimes this “other tree” is farther away than it may appear at first glance!
Although pawpaws frequently grow in clusters (think pawpaw patch), the trees in a patch are often genetically identical and connected underground by roots (and thus, in biological terms, are a single plant). Nonetheless, pawpaw’s pollinators (which include flies and beetles) inevitably pollinate some flowers, and fruit-hunters may eventually find a tree with fruit.
Did you catch that little snippet about flies and beetles being the primary pollinators of pawpaw fruits?
Pawpaw bloom Photo Credit Kentucky State University Land Grant Program – Jonathan Palmer
Here in Appalachia, serious hobbyist and a few commercial producers often hang rotting meat in pawpaw trees to draw in flies. Still others deliberately plant pawpaw trees near horse barns or livestock, because wherever there are critters there are bound to be more flies for pollination.
So if you venture into the fields during pawpaw bloom in late spring and see a muslin bag hanging in a tree, just keep moving. Ain’t no flies on you that way! Giggles
You are going to love it, or not. There is no middle ground.
If you have never tasted the fruit, it’s hard to explain; kind of creamy and sweet like a banana, mellow but with some tropical kick perhaps like a mango. Some folks throw in a pineapple flavor as a descriptor…. but not me.
I think pawpaw fruits tastes like fall in Kentucky’s Appalachia.
A pawpaw’s flavor is sunny, electric, and downright tropical: a riot of mango-banana-citrus that’s incongruous with its temperate, deciduous forest origins. They also have a subtle kick of a yeasty, floral aftertaste a bit like unfiltered wheat beer. “The flavor of pawpaws is forceful and distinct,” writes culinary historian Mark F. Sohn diplomatically in his encyclopedic book, Appalachian Home Cooking.
It has this tropical custard texture. That’s more like fruits you find in the Caribbean, fruits like guanabana and cherimoya, custard apples.
The best thing you can do with a ripe, fresh pawpaw is just to eat it out of hand. Cut it in half, scoop it out and eat it like a custard in a cup, which is essentially what it is.
Charlie and I are big fans of pawpaws. It is an annual event to traipse to the secret pawpaw patch. We have been working with pawpaw recipes for years including desserts, savories and sauces. We love the tropical taste!
Not Everyone Agrees About Pawpaw Fruit Taste
Back in 2011, a celebrated chef’s momma took up her favorite pen (she collects them) to do a guest post about her distaste for pawpaws. Her nickname is “Poke Salat Annie” and if you are in the Southern food crowd you know exactly who she is.
It was and is our little secret.
Annie wrote in a Friends Drift Inn Pawpaw Palooza article: THE GOOD BAD AND UGLY
I tasted one, only once…. that was enough for me. It quickly became one of the very few things that I just can’t bring myself to taste again.
Over the years, I have scouted out trees and suffered the smells just to get a few for my Mom to enjoy. I tried to convince myself that it was just an overripe banana so I could share one with her…. sorry, just couldn’t do it.
Maybe, one day, I will be able to take one and peel it and eat it like a peach and get that look of enjoyment that I saw on my Mom’s face…. maybe not!
So there you have it.
Some folks love pawpaw fruits, and some folks not so much!
There are even a few poor souls out there that have an allergy to pawpaws! When in doubt, ask your family doctor.
KSU Extension Specialist, Joni Nelson, at the KY State Fair pawpaw exhibit.
My roommate in college studied Nutrition. She loved to rattle off all the pros and cons of various foods.
Me, I was just more interested in what it tasted like and if I could grow them.
But I get it, some of y’all like to know the basics. We at Friends Drift Inn are not nutrition experts nor do we tout the health benefits of pawpaws. We leave that to the experts at Kentucky State University.
Here’s a quick snippet about growing characteristics of pawpaws: website:
Pawpaw has three times as much vitamin C as apple, twice as much as banana, and one third as much as orange. Pawpaw has six times as much riboflavin as apple, and twice as much as orange. Niacin content of pawpaw is twice as high as banana, fourteen times as high as apple, and four times as high as orange.
Pawpaw and banana are both high in potassium, having about twice as much as orange and three times as much as apple. Pawpaw has one and a half times as much calcium as orange, and about ten times as much as banana or apple. Pawpaw has two to seven times as much phosphorus, four to twenty times as much magnesium, twenty to seventy times as much iron, five to twenty times as much zinc, five to twelve times as much copper, and sixteen to one hundred times as much manganese, as do banana, apple, or orange.
Kentucky State University in Frankfort is one of the world’s “seed vaults” and “gene bank” for pawpaws. They have even hosted the International Pawpaw Conference. It is a big deal.
Pawpaw cake is just the beginning of uses for pawpaw fruit.
(Coming soon Friends Drift Inn Pawpaw Jam. Don’t miss out on the announcement-this will be a limited run seasonal product.)
Y’all a confession. Until I was an adult, I never gave pawpaw fruit much thought. They were a fall fruit we went out in the hems of the pastures to eat out-of-hand. You simply slit the skin enough to put your face in the fragrant fruit and slurped it out – spitting the seeds as you went.
Mark Sohn, like myself an former contributor to the Appalachian-News Express food section, has written about many possibilities including pawpaw ice cream, pawpaw breads and pawpaw cakes.
But it was University of Kentucky’s chef-in-residence, Bob Perry, who piqued my curiosity when he shared a pawpaw crème brulee recipe at the International Pawpaw Conference.
Chef Anthony Lamas of Seviche in Louisville likes to make a pawpaw salsa. Chef Justin Dean at Madhouse Vinegar near Cincinnati is developing a line of pawpaw vinegars.
Really, I think we have barely scratched the surface of what pawpaw fruits can be used for.
If someone would just figure out a way to process them (removing the seeds is a bear) you just might begin to see more pawpaw products like bakery goods, beer and wine in your local gourmet shop.
A few years back, Jeff Gordinier with the New York Times gave me a call inquiring about what could be substituted for pawspaws. He was looking for an ingredient that the average consumer could easily access.
The article resulted in a recipe for pawpaw pudding.
I could not come up with an answer-which at the time embarrassed me. But I was not alone.
When it comes to pawpaw, accept no substitutes. Trust us; we tried. We went to a bunch of experts — scholars who specialize in fruit, plus chefs and cookbook authors who know all about the proud culinary history of Appalachia….
Everyone came back with variations on “Forget it, there’s nothing like a pawpaw.”
So How Can I Taste A Pawpaw Fruit?
Check local farmers markets in late August and September for pawpaws.
In our region, USDA 6B, pawpaws mature in late August on up through September depending on rainfall and temperatures.
If you are in the Southeast or Midwest, check out local farmers markets.
The next best thing is to order a jar of our pawpaw jam.
It is not the same as a fresh fruit, no way no how. But Friends Drift Inn has come up with a Pawpaw Jam recipe we will be unveiling in the fall of 2020.
Pawpaw jam is great for baking and as an ice cream topping; with a flavor akin to bananas foster for lack of a better descriptor.
Sign up for our “Inn-Sider” Newsletter to be the first to know when our pawpaw jam is available!
We take pawpaws serious here in Kentucky. According to the Kentucky State University website KSU is:
the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository or gene bank, for Asimina species (pawpaw), as a satellite site of the NCGR repository at Corvallis, OR. There are over 2,000 accessions (trees) from 17 states that are planted on 12 acres at the KSU farm.
Celebrate National Pawpaw Day at KSU!
KSU hosts a National Pawpaw Day celebration each year on the Third Thursday of September, at the college farm near Frankfort. The program varies, but often includes updates from Extension personnel of growing, propagating, and harvesting pawpaws. A session on value-added products such as pawpaw jam, wine, and ale are usually presented. On years when the pawpaw harvest is abundant, a tasting event comparing various varieties of pawpaws is offered.
And of course, the lunch features pawpaw ice cream and pawpaw cake!
Here in modern-day Appalachia, the Hatfields and McCoys are usually good friends. There is a spirit of community between the two families to set aside differences, heal old wounds, and celebrate the best of Appalachia’s tourism and cultural opportunities.
The Hatfield and McCoy Feud sites attracts hundreds of visitors each year.
There is an annual play “Blood Song” which focuses on the ill-fated lovers, Roseanna McCoy and Johnse Hatfield. A Hatfield-McCoy reunion weekend is celebrated each year with a pig roast at the Pikeville Farmers Market, tours of the Dils Cemetery and the family homeplaces.
But that does not mean the Hatfield-McCoy feud was merely a myth, driven by 1880 era journalists who sensationalized mountaineer stereotypes.
Many folks died on both sides.
One of the most violent occurrences is what as known as “The Pawpaw Incident.” A Kentucky historical marker here in Pike County reads:
The Pawpaw Tree Incident
This episode is result of August 1882 election-day fight. Tolbert, a son of Randolph McCoy, exchanged heated words with Ellison Hatfield, which started a fight. Tolbert, Pharmer and Randolph McCoy Jr. stabbed Ellison to death. Later the three brothers were captured by Hatfield clan, tied to pawpaw trees, and shot in retaliation.
Presented by Pikeville-Pike County Tourism.
Harvesting pawpaws is fun, if you know how.
The trick is to harvest pawpaws when they become soft, preferably before they fall from the tree. They must be gathered at the peak of freshness. They bruise easily and spoil quickly.
You must pick them up or pull from the tree before the varmints, especially possums and raccoons, get to them.
And About Pawpaw Availablity….
If you need pawpaws in bulk, like we do for our pawpaw jam, there is yet another challenge. Commercial growers in the area are getting premium prices for pawpaws from our growing community of craft brewers. Pawpaw fruits apparently make a pretty good beer!
Pawpaw pulp is hard to produce; and even harder to secure. It does not come cheap.
All that said, do you remember the folk song from elementary school “Picking up Pawpaws and Putting ‘Em in Your Pocket?”
I never understood that song.
Why in the world would you put a soft, goopy pawpaw in your pocket? That is about as smart as gathering eggs and putting them in the back pocket of your Levi’s.
If you have come to the end of this article with me, you have gleaned the most important piece of advice I can share with you.
Don’t pick up a pawpaw and put it in your pocket! Just find you a place to sit in the Kentucky sunshine, split open a pawpaw and enjoy one of the forgotten flavors of our kinfolk.