I didn’t know I was a gourmet.
That startling realization came after a few minutes of internet research when I discovered that my favorite native fruit has now become a hot epicurean commodity among chefs and foodies. Food writers wax poetic and cooks are willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for something I consider a simple but delightful Indiana treat: the pawpaw.
Yep, that’s me: someone who likes truffle vinaigrette on my Vienna sausages and a serving of Baked Alaska after polishing off a cold can of ravioli.
Regardless of your own taste or lack thereof, it’s pawpaw picking time here in Indiana and I’ll share a few thoughts and ideas on the subject. What I won’t share is my great new top-secret patch laden with fruit that sits squarely in the middle of several suburban backyards.
If you’ve lived in this state for any length of time you’ve undoubtedly heard of the pawpaw even if you’re not exactly sure what it is. Hoosier folklore is rife with pawpaw references; famed poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote about them and there are towns and townships named after the fruit.
For starters, the pawpaw is Indiana’s largest native fruit and the only member of the custard-apple family that doesn’t grow in tropical areas. The fruit itself is actually a six-inch oval berry laden with dark brown seeds and surrounded by a thick waxy green skin. However, between the huge seeds and the shabby-looking covering lies the most luscious, soft, tropical, sweet, unique-tasting yellow pulp that causes pawpaw fanatics such as Your Humble Correspondent to develop a crazed craving every mid-September.
In consistency, at peak ripeness when the skin turns yellow-going-on-black, the pulp is very similar to baked custard. In fact, I’ve often wondered why it wasn’t originally called a “pudding berry” or something more descriptive than the canine-sounding official name. Regardless of which proper or colloquial name you call it, the “Indiana banana” is truly one of the best gifts to be found in the Hoosier outdoors.
The taste, unique and complex, defies easy explanation. Often expressed as a cross between a banana and a mango, it is far more complicated than that. Two hours ago, eating my first pawpaw of the season, I decided the almost-ripe fruit tasted more mango than banana but also held notes of persimmon, oranges, fresh strawberries and even a touch of bourbon. It is refreshing and savory without the excessive tartness of some tropical fruits but also without the cloying sweetness of a mango.
The fruit are almost impossible to find in markets because once ripe, they are even squishier than a November persimmon and rot quickly. That’s why nearly the only way to find them is by locating a pawpaw patch and checking it continuously.
Fortunately, pawpaws grow nearly anyplace with good drainage and abundant moisture in sun or shade. The trees are smallish, almost shrubby, and tend to grow in thick patches. Typically found as an understory tree in the forest, my new pawpaw patch is surrounded by manicured lawn and there is even a small grove in the middle of the Purdue University Campus if you know where to look.
Sorry, I’m not sharing that one either.
The trick to finding pawpaws is looking in early spring. During your rambles, look for the purplish cup-and-saucer pawpaw flower that is one of the first things to sprout from a tree in early April. Once discovered, mark the spot with a photo on your phone and then start checking back around the first week of September. I’ve found that the trees tend to bear erratically and sometimes not at all even after a healthy crop of flowers so it’s best to have several patches under surveillance.
How to eat pawpaws
This is the point where a real writer would share all the marvelous things you can do with pawpaw pulp but I’ll be honest: I seldom have many left over after gulping down the flesh with a spoon. I’ve had pawpaw ice cream once and it is marvelous; I’ve also baked muffins but found them unimpressive. It seems that the delicate flavor of the fruit doesn’t translate well into baked goods or foods with other strong flavors.
However, this might be the year that I finally get around to making jam from the pulp and several cooks have noted that the flesh does freeze well. I have it on good authority that pawpaw gelato and frozen pops are deliciously refreshing so maybe we’ll get a chance to make some next summer. At least that is the optimistic theory I’m operating under at this point.
As usual, though, I’ll probably just end up eating every single pawpaw I find. I can’t help myself but then again, there are worse problems to have than a full belly of this marvelous native fruit.
Cooking with pawpaws – From Kentucky State University
On a related note- November is Time for Persimmons
All photos by author