Lemonade springs where bluebirds sing abound in the folk song “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” The 1928 tune found new life in the Coen brothers’ comedy O Brother, Where Are Thou, and in this hobo’s fantasy of a perfect world, cigarettes grow on trees and “hens lay soft-boiled eggs.”
Songwriter Harry McClintock left out one real-life American wonder — a fruit that looks like a potato, grows on trees and has a spoonable custardy consistency — a tastebud-treat that comforts the palate like crème brûlée with hints of vanilla, mango or melon.
Meet the pawpaw, a humbly named botanical wonder that is the continent’s largest indigenous fruit. Kidney-shaped with black, lima-bean-sized seeds, it can grow as long as six inches and weigh more than a pound and a half. Pawpaw trees tower 30 feet high or taller in a swath of 26 states from Nebraska to Delaware and as far south as Florida.
Eaten by American Indians and relished by our Founding Fathers, today pawpaws are as forgotten as gristmills, smokehouses and spinning wheels. In his 2015 book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, Pittsburgh-based reporter Andrew Moore investigated this culinary, cultural and agricultural amnesia by visiting Asimina triloba (aka pawpaw) growers and festivals and sniffing out long-lost orchards.
“There’s something very mysterious and romantic about the idea that this used to be central to the food systems of people who lived here, and it just disappeared 100 years ago,” one pawpaw-festival vendor told Moore.
Like some fugitive from culinary justice, the pawpaw has surfaced under cunning aliases like “bandango,” “custard apple” and the euphonious appellation of “Indiana banana.” “Deprive a Hoosier of his favorite fruit, and he’s your enemy for life,” warned the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal in 1892.
I first became aware of this enigmatic edible when, as a child, I watched the 1960s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. It recounted the madcap adventures of a family of Ozark rubes who struck oil and vamoosed to a mansion in Los Angeles. Granny, the clan’s matriarch, served their fancy-pants guests downhome treats like ham hocks, dandelion greens and — horror of horrors — pickled pawpaws.
Having grown up in the South, I knew some folks who favored Granny’s dishes, but I had never heard of pawpaws, much less ones jarred in brine. Fast-forward more than two score years, and I found myself a North Carolina homeowner with a pawpaw in his front yard — a tree so spindly it looked like it needed a crutch to stay up. In seven years, the sickly thing produced one or two fruits that looked like withered black bananas. They were inedible.
Last year I found a farm 20 miles away that sold pawpaws. I could not believe how succulent they were. I bought sacks of them to give to friends and strangers. Imagine me — a Johnny Pawpawseed!
Almost no one had heard of them. No one had ever tasted one. To a person they spooned out the milky contents with gusto, leaving nothing behind but leathery skins and seeds sucked dry. Then I happened to hand out a few pawpaws at a farm. Little did I know when I threw the scraps into the sty that, ironically, they’re one food hogs won’t gobble.
Washington is said to have enjoyed denture-friendly, chilled pawpaw desserts. Jefferson grew the trees and sent seeds to European friends. Audubon painted them with birds. Daniel Boone likely relished them. Walt Whitman wrote about them. Carl Sandburg said he was going to “make America pawpaw conscious.”
To heck with kiwis, acai berries and pomegranates, let’s have some consciousness-raising for a fruit so gol-darned American it saved the returning Lewis and Clark expedition from starvation. As the group neared present-day St. Louis in September 1806, all they had left to eat for three days was this Missouri manna. “Our party entirely out of provisions subsisting on poppaws . . . [but] the party appear perfectly contented and tell us they can live very well on the pappaws,” their journal says.
Experts raved about them. Pawpaws are “superior” and would “become a grand standard fruit of America,” decreed botanist Luther Burbank. “There is probably no native fruit of greater real value and more promising,” raved the American Horticultural Society in 1888.
So if humans pig out on pawpaws, why are they forgotten? Perhaps their addictive qualities caused them to run afoul of the law. “It is said no habit gets a stronger hold on a man than the pawpaw habit,” reported a 1920s garden magazine. One observer said that pawpaw brandy made its imbibers “feel like [they] were floating on a pink cloud eating ice cream.” Of pawpaw beer, another Louisville newspaper reported in 1896 that “a pint will take the paint off a brick house and make a man forget he has a mother-in-law.”
Could it be that pawpaws are aphrodisiacs, and our prudish ancestors suppressed them? Consider the folk song “Sweet Rose Marie”: “In a pawpaw patch when the pawpaws were ripe / I was loving sweet Rose Marie / When she said, ‘If you have a hot pawpaw / I’ll let you tickle me.”
The truth is less lyrical. Pawpaws have a short growing season and shelf life. There’s no easy way to get their seeds out or skins off. They can’t be machine harvested. Moore visited a Maryland grower with 1,000 trees who told him, “Each pawpaw must be given a gentle squeeze . . . feeling for the slightest bit of give” before it can be picked. Were agribusinesses to push pawpaws, it would require millions in upfront money and a multiyear waiting period before the first harvests.
There is hope, advocates say. South Korean companies planted 3 million pawpaw trees in the last decade, seeking medicinal uses from its fruit that Purdue University researcher Jerry McLaughlin claims “might be the strongest cancer-fighting tool yet discovered” because of its 350 hitherto-unknown, potentially tumor-killing compounds. And in 2014 First Lady Michelle Obama planted a pawpaw tree at the White House.
But the true hope for a pawpaw revival lies with everyday Americans. “With the rise of the local food movement, the awareness of the importance of native plants, the search for a return to authentic, regional cuisines, and the desire for organic, sustainable agriculture, the current cultural climate might finally be the one in which pawpaw breaks through,” writes Moore.
Plant a pawpaw tree. It’s patriotic.
George Spencer is a freelance writer who lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.