By the time I arrived at Brooklyn’s Park Slope farmers’ market in search of a pawpaw one morning last week, it was already too late: The weird green fruit had sold out within an hour. “You have to get here early,” Jeff Rowe of Orchard Hill Organics, the market’s lone pawpaw vendor, told me. The day before, I had struck out in Manhattan’s expansive Union Square Greenmarket, where a seller told me pawpaws were extremely rare. The most upscale grocery stores—the kind that sell black garlic and cotton-candy grapes—also had none to offer.
I yearned to taste the enigmatic fruit that so many people seem to be talking about lately. Food writers marvel at how “magical” it is. Bartenders mix rum-and-pawpaw cocktails. At pawpaw festivals across the country, chefs whip up dishes such as pawpaw chicken wraps and pawpaw curry puffs. The pawpaw is having a moment, perhaps because it is a mass of contradictions: Its custardy flesh, ranging in color from butter yellow to sunset orange, tastes like a mix of banana, mango, and pineapple (or so I’d heard). But unlike those fruits, pawpaws are not native to the tropics; instead, the fruit grows across the Eastern United States and up into Canada. Pawpaw trees thrive along creeks and rivers, and there’s a good chance you’ve passed one without even knowing it.
But even though the prized fruit grows quite literally in America’s backyard, it’s not easy to try a pawpaw for yourself. During the short window between August and early October when pawpaws are in season, foragers hunt down pawpaw patches and a few farmers’ markets put them up for sale. But because of the challenges in growing and shipping the fruit, they’re just about impossible to find in supermarkets. Miraculously, a friend who was part of a food co-op tracked three down. They were the size of dinner rolls, with smooth, green skin that had already begun to brown and collapse beneath our fingers from over-ripeness. They resembled ugly mangoes, or maybe Baby Yoda. I swaddled one in a puffer vest and guarded it with my life.
The pawpaw’s sheer elusiveness has relegated the fruit to niche status at best, even in spite of the interest in it. But its conspicuous absence from grocery stores feels a bit strange compared with our standards: Americans have come to expect even highly seasonal produce, even in the dead of winter, in part because a mind-bending amount of science and technology goes into making that happen. Indeed, American agriculture has a strong track record of making once-obscure plants go mainstream. Avocados, a little-known California crop for most of the 20th century, are ubiquitous in stores and on slices of toast. Kale, once used to garnish Pizza Hut salad bars, became a grocery staple in the early aughts following its unlikely rise among the fashion elite. Someday, will we all be eating pawpaws?
Pawpaws just might be the most quintessentially American fruit. Unlike apples or cherries, they are native to this continent. Pawpaw groves, long fostered by some Native American tribes, sustained hungry members of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806 and supplemented the meager diets of enslaved Africans. At least six states have towns named after the pawpaw. But starting in the 1900s, the fruit faded from view as industrial farming took over. Its homely looks may also be to blame: A 1912 New York Times article claimed that a woman could not eat a pawpaw in front of her lover because “the sight is disgusting to the point of utter disillusion.” In rural communities, some people continued foraging for pawpaws, leading to the nicknames “hillbilly banana” and “poor man’s banana.” But in recent years, as Americans have started to embrace local food and foraging has become a movement itself, the pawpaw has boomed. Today, wild pawpaws cannot seem to sustain the demand for the fruit: Rowe, the farmers’-market vendor, said he’s constantly selling out of pawpaws.
The biggest problem stopping the pawpaw from going big is the fruit itself. The apple from your grocery store might have been picked up to a year ago, but the pawpaw resists attempts to be eaten in anything but its freshest state. Once plucked, it must be consumed within three to five days, if stored at room temperature. Dallying inevitably results in a wet, brown mass of mush, a transformation hastened by the tenderness of the fruit’s skin. Such fragility stands little chance against a truck ride across the country or the rigors of a Whole Foods produce display. “You have to get it and eat it or do something with it, otherwise it’s gone,” Chris Chmiel, the owner of Integration Acres in Ohio, one of the world’s biggest pawpaw processors, told me. “It’s effervescent.”
There are other problems too. Most pawpaws stay green throughout their life cycle, which means growers must gently caress each one to gauge its softness and willingness to release from the branch—no small task when each fruit on a tree matures at different times. Many commercially grown fruits, including apples, grapes, and strawberries, are affordable because they are handpicked in sprawling fields by low-wage workers at a breakneck pace. Because the pawpaws you can buy at farmers’ markets are usually foraged or hand-harvested in small orchards, then packed and transported quickly, they come with a pretty hefty cost: Prices generally range from $3 to $8 a pound.
But wilder, fussier fruits have been tamed before. A century ago, the only way to get blueberries was to forage for them in the woods. “People tried really hard to grow them out from seed, but it’s super hard,” Anya Osatuke, a Cornell University fruit-production specialist who works with pawpaw growers in New York, told me. In 1916, agriculturalists ranked pawpaws over blueberries as the American fruit most likely to succeed. Eventually, farmers discovered that blueberries thrived when they dug entire bushes out from the forest and planted them in full sun. Decades of selective breeding for better berries ensued, together with the development of ultraefficient packing methods and mechanical harvesters. Now blueberries are the second-most-produced berry in the United States after strawberries.
To actually get pawpaws into grocery stores, the fruit will need to go through similarly dedicated breeding efforts. To a certain degree, that is happening. At Kentucky State University, researchers at the world’s only full-time pawpaw-research program have worked since the 1990s to develop a better, more commercially viable fruit: one that is firm and tasty, with thick skin that changes color when ripe. So far, the program has bred and released three new varieties. The most recent one, the Chapell, has a reputation as the most vigorous and fast-growing pawpaw tree and produces creamy fruit with especially strong notes of banana and pineapple.
But creating a better pawpaw is slow work. To breed new varieties, researchers cross individual trees—say, one with pineapple-forward fruit and another with a tougher skin that is better suited to shipping. Growing a fruit-producing tree from a seed takes around eight years, and propagating more trees from the new plant takes another four. Factor in more time to run replicated-variety trials and collect several years’ worth of data and the process can take as long as 15 years, Sheri Crabtree, a pawpaw expert at Kentucky State, told me.
Even with the improvements over wild pawpaws, “I don’t know how close we are to getting something that’s dramatically better at shipping and storing,” Crabtree said. Unlike so-called climacteric fruits such as oranges and grapes, pawpaws continue to ripen once they’re picked. They both release and respond to a hormone called ethylene, whose levels increase during ripening. But not all fruit in this category is doomed to become goo like the pawpaw: Green bananas, once picked, stay unripe until deliberately exposed to ethylene during storage, ensuring that markets receive perfectly yellow bunches. Pawpaws are less accommodating. “To my knowledge, no one has ever been able to pick a pawpaw that didn’t just naturally ripen on its own accord,” Rob Brannan, a food scientist at Ohio University, told me.
Brannan has studied the browning process in pawpaws, which involves polyphenol oxidase, the same enzyme that gives cut apples and avocados their muddy color. The enzyme can be deactivated by heat or extremely high pressure, which is why supermarket guacamole stays bright green, he said. But the technique didn’t work on pawpaws. “We did the same thing, and it doesn’t inactivate the enzyme,” Brannan said.
That doesn’t mean the pawpaw is destined to be foraged and nothing else. If the pawpaw’s challenges had proven insurmountable with other produce, the American diet would look very different. Bright-red tomatoes are available in the dead of winter thanks to tightly controlled greenhouses that operate around the clock. Some Gala apples are imported all the way from New Zealand. Eventually, the pawpaw could get there too. “I’m sure if someone puts their mind to it, they could do it,” Osatuke said.
Pawpaws are in a weird spot: They are highly coveted by some people, but not in-demand enough to lead to money for widespread research that would deliver the next generation of pawpaws. With enough time and money, commercial harvests could reach a point where shipping pawpaws would actually be realistic. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture funds development of new plant varieties, but “there has to be an economic argument” for doing so, Brannan said. What the fruit needs is a patron, he added, much like the pair of Beverly Hills billionaires who kick-started the modern American pomegranate industry in the early 2000s by planting 6,000 acres of trees in California. Barring that, enthusiasts will have to accept pawpaws for what they have always been: a rare treat able to be savored for only a few fleeting weeks each year.
For now, the best we can do is refrigerate pawpaws to eke a few more days out of the fruit, or harvest and freeze the pulp to store it long-term. Processed pawpaw products—ice cream, baked goods, dessert wines, sour beers—may be the fruit’s best shot at commercial success. Integration Acres, which Chmiel founded in the ’90s after observing the abundance of wasted pawpaws under Ohio’s native trees, churns out frozen pulp, jams, and vinaigrettes. “When you have lemons, you make lemonade. When you have a lot of pawpaws, you make pawpaw pulp,” he said. In 1999, he founded the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, which draws as many as 10,000 attendees to partake in fruit-eating and cooking competitions.
It may not be the worst thing in the world for pawpaws to play hard to get. Even if it was possible to scale production and ship the fruit nationwide, doing so would be at odds with the urge for local, sustainable food that fueled the pawpaw boom in the first place. Planting huge pawpaw orchards might just add to the ecological toll of mass farming. Breeders could use genetic modification to improve the fruit, Brannan said, but “that’s 180 degrees from what people think of the pawpaw. The pawpaw is real, natural, authentic, and local.” For all the weird, frustrating aspects of pawpaws, they are a reminder of just how far food science has come in a century-plus.
By the time I returned home, my lone pawpaw was squishy and the color of trampled moss. Slicing it open, I spooned the flesh into my mouth and began to understand the fascination: With a scent like banana bread and a pleasant, persimmon-like sweetness, it was different from any American fruit I had ever tasted. Rather, it surfaced a childhood memory from the Philippines of eating atis, a relative of the pawpaw known in English as a sweetsop or sugar apple. What was more intriguing than the pawpaw’s flavor was the novelty of being whisked away to the tropics by a wild American fruit that I had hunted down for a week. Would it have been as good if I’d bought it from a stack at Trader Joe’s?