An American Fruit You Haven't Tried


Photo by Wikimedia Commons

I can't actually remember, but I think this is our third year of making and selling paw paw gelato. Regardless of when we actually started, though, it's already pretty clear to me that this old-time American fruit is going to become a big Zingerman's fall tradition. Wait five or ten years and paw paws will be as much a ritual of autumn around here as paella-making in September, round challahs and honey cake for Rosh Hashanah, and roasting peppers from Cornman Farms. It's hard to miss, really--how can you not be biased towards a Native American fruit called a paw paw? And who doesn't like ice cream? Gotta love, too, that they're also known as the Prairie Banana the Hoosier Banana, or the Poor Man's Banana. How about a Prairie Banana Split with toasted black walnuts and good whipped cream, and a little chopped fresh paw paw to put it over the top?

The paw paw is really my kind of culinary underdog--the mass marketing world would rule this one out pretty quickly. The poor paw paw is hard to grow and, despite its long history, very few people in the U.S. have really ever eaten it. Like a lot of the old fruits, the amount of work required to grow 'em versus the yield in picked, ripe paw paws isn't all that great. It doesn't ship well, and shelf life is short so you can't keep it in the cooler indefinitely. From a growing standpoint it's challenging too because it's got a long taproot, so saplings are hard to transplant. Like I said, you can see why it long ago fell out of favor with most fruit growers.

I've been thinking that the paw paw could possibly be the North American equivalent of passion fruit.

On the upside once you get a paw paw successfully planted it's low maintenance. If you're buying on nutrition they're really high in vitamin C, riboflavin, niacin, and magnesium. Apparently paw paw stems and leaves are great natural pesticides. And they're easier than many fruits to grow organically. There's also a town named Paw Paw right here in Michigan. In fact, Paw Paw is where Malinda Russell, author of the first African-American cookbook published in America, lived. If you're really ready to get serious on the not particularly well traveled paw paw path, note that Kentucky State University has the only full time paw paw program in the country.

Paw paws do have a pretty profound history. Native to North America, the first recorded notes on them are from the 1541 expedition of Hernando de Soto. Lewis and Clark ate a lot of them. Meriwether Lewis wrote in his diary from September 15, 1806: "We landed one time only to let the men gather paw paws or the custard apple of which this country abounds, and the men are very fond of." While George Washington is famous for chopping down the cherry tree, I'm not sure how he felt about eating cherries. By contrast it's well recorded that the paw paw was his favorite dessert! Thomas Jefferson--culinary leader that he was--had them grown at Monticello. I'm not sure if this is good or bad, but they're also featured in "Jungle Book." They're in the "Bare Necessities" song, where Baloo the Bear compares them to a prickly pear: "... you don't need to use a claw when you pick a pair of big paw paws."

To give you a better sense of the visuals, paw paw trees grow from about 10 to 20 feet in height. They have long dark green, sort of droopy-eared leaves. In fact they're the largest edible fruit that grows in North America; the biggest paw paw ever recorded was 18 inches across. They look a bit like a mango, I guess, but in pear green-colored flesh. The fruits are ripe when their skin gets a bit darker and the perfume is more pronounced. If you get some that aren't ready to eat, just let them lie (or put 'em in a paper bag) for a bit to ripen up. When they are ripe, you take the skins off and mash up the pulp. Like avocados the pulp will brown up pretty quickly, so keep refrigerated and away from air.

One challenge is that you have to get the seeds out--they look a bit like lima beans and you don't eat them. Fortunately they're big enough that getting them out isn't horribly onerous, just a significant pain in the...paw paw. You can make the puree into custard, pastry cream, paw paw pie, or gelato. I have to say that I'm happy we have the gelato, because it makes it really easy to eat this somewhat challenging fruit in our speed-focused modern world.

Aside from all that, which is already pretty intriguing, the interesting thing about paw paws is that I can't quite put my finger (or maybe, my paw?) on exactly how to describe the flavor. I've been thinking that the paw paw could possibly be the North American equivalent of passion fruit. Turns out that I wasn't all that wrong--they're a distant relative of the tropical Cherimoya. Slightly citrusy, kind of custardy when ripe. The flavor's not strong. But it is rather smoothly persuasive, never pervasive or intrusive. Got maybe a hint of lime, a little vanilla, a papaya, maybe a touch of the taste of ripe pear. The main thing here of course is that the paw paw gelato is pretty special. Light but luscious, if you can cope with not having chocolate, it's really something special both in its history and its flavor.