Earthy Delights, a company that has been providing professional and home chefs with wild foraged, exotic foods for over 30 years, sells several pawpaw related items, including jam, fresh pawpaws, frozen pawpaw puree, and pawpaw vinegar. Click here to view their full pawpaw product listing.
It’s difficult to even begin to comprehend the amount of mountain knowledge that has been lost over the past half-century in the hills of Appalachia — so many of the basic skills for simply surviving have vanished with the dying off of our region’s old timers and many fear we have lost basic skill sets that will take generations to re-learn.
Today, very few people living in the mountains of Appalachia even know how to identify sassafras, let alone make it into a tea. Same thing goes for a dozen other effective home remedies that are now ancient history, tucked away in some dusty book one seldom reads.
One of the greatest losses of mountain knowledge over the past generation is, in my opinion, how our country simply forgot about what was once upon a time its favorite fruit tree: The Paw Paw.
The largest edible fruit to grow in the United States, the paw paw was often referred to as “the poor man’s banana” and is native to 26 different states.
As described by horticulturist Barbara Damrosch, the fruit of the pawpaw “looks a bit like mango, but with pale yellow, custardy, spoonable flesh and black, easy-to-remove seeds.”
Pawpaw fruits have a sweet, custardish flavor somewhat similar to banana, mango, and cantaloupe.
Nineteenth-century American agronomist E. Lewis Sturtevant described pawpaws as “… a natural custard, too luscious for the relish of most people…”
Ohio botanist William B. Werthner noted that “the fruit … has a tangy wild-wood flavor peculiarly its own. It is sweet, yet rather cloying to the taste and a wee bit puckery – only a boy can eat more than one at a time.”
Despite their “puckery” nature, the fruit became a staple part of the diet of early Appalachian settlers.
In 1541, Spanish explorers found Native Americans cultivating the fruits along streams and rivers east of the Mississippi.
The Iroquois used the mashed fruit to make small cakes that were dried and stored. The dried cakes were soaked in water
and cooked to make a sauce or relish that was served with corn bread. Raw and cooked fruits were dried by the sun or on a fire. These were stored for use in the future or taken on hunts.
The Cherokee used the inner bark to make cordage. By twisting the bark, they made string and strong ropes.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition consumed pawpaws during their travels, particularly while traveling via the nation’s rivers.
Chilled pawpaw fruit was a favorite dessert of George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson planted it at Monticello, his home in Virginia.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that Paw Paws cannot be mass-produced and profitably shipped by commercial fruit entities, their consumption has all but ended in the age of consumerism; Paw Paws can only be kept 2–3 days at room temperature, or about a week if refrigerated. The easily bruised pawpaw fruits do not ship well unless frozen.
As kayaking and a host of other river activities are coming back into the mainstream, Americans are slowly rediscovering the fruit tree that never went away… we just forgot about it as a people.
Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia! Click here to check out the book on Amazon!
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