The revival of a forgotten American fruit

An even larger festival in Ohio has been drawing fans since 1999. “Last year we had close to 10,000 visitors,” said Chris Chmiel, co-owner of Integration Acres in Albany, Ohio, where he grows pawpaws, ships pawpaw products and helps organize the village’s annual festival. “People attend every year, and it has become a family tradition to many. We also host a pawpaw cook-off, best pawpaw competition and a pawpaw eating competition. The pawpaw beer has been a huge success for the festival!”

Chmiel stumbled on the pawpaw as a college student, and he influenced the course of his studies and his career in sustainable agriculture. He even has a tattoo of the fruit on his arm. “It’s a tropical fruit growing right here in Appalachia… it’s sort of the king of the native plants around here,” he said in a 2018 TEDx Talk.

The pawpaw is in the same family as the custard apple, cherimoya, sweetsop, soursop and ylang-ylang. It’s a subtropical fruit that migrated north from Central America, and it is atypical; the only member of the family not confined to the tropics.

The earliest fossil evidence of pawpaws originated in the Miocene Epoch, about 23 to 5.3 million years ago in what is now Colorado. Over time, the climate has had warming periods, expanding the range of tropical areas north and, by extension, the pawpaw. Additionally, scientists have hypothesized that pawpaws were dispersed northward by megafauna, like mastodons, mammoths and sloths, saber-toothed cats and giant beavers.

There is evidence that humans played a role in pawpaw dispersal as well. “Natives in the eastern half of the country have always used pawpaws,” said Dr Devon Mihesuah, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who holds the Cora Lee Beers Price professorship in International Cultural Understanding at the University of Kansas. “Iroquois reportedly mashed pawpaws and made the flesh into cakes and then dried them in the sun. They were used as a travel food or mixed with water into cornbread.”

In 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto took note of Native Americans cultivating it east of the Mississippi River. George Washington wrote in his diary in 1785: “Planted all my cedars, all my pawpaw, and two honey locust trees.” (Though there’s no historical documentation, it is said chilled pawpaw was Washington’s favorite dessert.) In 1786, when Thomas Jefferson was minister to France, he had pawpaw seeds and plants shipped from Virginia to friends in Europe. A journal entry from the explorers Lewis and Clark dated 18 September 1806 recorded that the men were “entirely out of provisions” but “appear perfectly contented”, living “very well on the pappaws.”

The fruit’s texture has been compared to custard, and the flavor is “a blend of banana and mango, with undertones of vanilla, caramel, pineapple, coconut and melon, depending on the cultivar”, said Sheri Crabtree, a horticulture and research extension associate at Kentucky State University’s pawpaw research program.

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