The Tropical Fruit That Could Have Been an All-American Favorite

How the pawpaw fell from grace

A sliced-open pawpaw
Lee Reich / AP

This article was updated at 9:32 a.m. ET on March 6, 2019.

In 1916, agricultural experts voted the pawpaw the American fruit most likely to succeed, ahead of blueberries and cranberries. But today most people have never even heard of it, let alone tried it. What is the pawpaw, and how did we forget it? Listen in this episode for a tale that involves mastodons and head lice, George Washington and Daniel Boone, and a petite but passionate community of pawpaw obsessives.

The pawpaw belongs to a family of tropical fruits called custard apples, and its cousins are popular throughout Central and South America. The guanábana, or soursop, makes for a common ice-cream flavor in Mexico; the cherimoya is one of Peru’s most beloved fruits. What, then, is the tropical pawpaw doing so far north—and why has it been overlooked?

The answer to the first question is simple, according to Andrew Moore, the author of Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit: It is a very ancient plant that emerged when the planet was much warmer. When things cooled down, it likely survived in a few pockets of North America, only to be redistributed across the Eastern part of the continent in the intestines of very large animals.* “Before humans showed up in North America, the pawpaw was eaten by large megafauna,” Moore explained. “Things like giant ground sloths or mastodons would have eaten the fruit whole, carried it across large distances, and then, through their droppings, deposited seeds.”

The answer to the second question is more complex. Certainly the continent’s original inhabitants were pawpaw fans. According to Devon Mihesuah, whose work at the University of Kansas focuses on empowering indigenous peoples, the pawpaw was not only enjoyed as food, but also valued as the raw material for products as diverse as head-lice shampoo and ropes. Early colonists too were intrigued by the fruit, and a stand of pawpaw trees helped Lewis and Clark survive a tricky patch on the Oregon Trail. So why is it overlooked today? “People say the pawpaw’s been forgotten,” Mihesuah said. “I’m not sure that it’s been forgotten. I think it’s been ignored, disliked, and unavailable.”

This episode, we explore why, and we speak to the pawpaw breeders, farmers, and enthusiasts who are leading its revival. Sheri Crabtree, a plant breeder at America’s only academic pawpaw-research program, at Kentucky State University, told us, “There is growing interest in pawpaw as a new crop.” A little bit farther north, near Athens, Ohio, Chris Chmiel has made promoting the pawpaw his life’s work, founding the world’s largest pawpaw festival and becoming the world’s largest pawpaw processor. And Sara Bir, the Gastropod listener who suggested this episode, has written a pawpaw cookbook that aims to lure the uninitiated with puddings and quick breads. Listen in now to find out more about this mysterious fruit—including where can you get hold of it!

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.

* This article previously mischaracterized the pawpaw’s origin.