Whether you call them a custard apple, poor man’s banana, Quaker delight, or Hoosier banana, one thing is for sure, the fruit enjoyed for centuries by Native Americans is both healthy, nutritious, and very good for us. Pawpaws contain three times as much vitamin C as an apple, twice the niacin and riboflavin as an orange, and about the same potassium as a banana. They are also high in magnesium, iron, manganese, copper, and several essential amino acids. And the big bonus is they’re delicious!
The pawpaw is the largest edible tree fruit native to North America and indigenous to the temperate woodlands of the eastern United States. Thanks to the American Indian, the pawpaw spread as far west as eastern Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas; from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes.
The first documentation of the pawpaw is found in the 1541 journals of Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, who found Native Americans eating and cultivating them east of the Mississippi River. Later in 1787, the journal of Major Benjamin Sites, founder of Columbia, Ohio, describes he and a company of twenty-six settlers clearing a pawpaw thicket to build a blockhouse. Accounts of the Lewis and Clark Expedition make numerous mention of their fondness for, and dependency on, this native fruit. George Washington’s favorite dessert was chilled pawpaw fruit, and Thomas Jefferson cultivated them at Monticello.
The pawpaw is a yellowish-green, oblong fruit, with brown or black splotches, about six inches in length, and weighing about eight ounces. The complex flavor of its sweet, custardy, bright yellow flesh has overtones of mango, banana, and pineapple. Some with a melon-like aftertaste. It’s been said that the pawpaw is best when eaten immediately after picking since they have a shelf-life of only a few days. But the pulp can be used to prepare a number of tasty treats–from pies, breads, and custards to sauces, brandy, and beer.
Since the early 1900s, there have been fierce competitions for selecting the largest and best tasting pawpaw. The first of these contests occurred in 1917 where the winning entry out of seventy competitors received a $100 prize. The largest pawpaw ever recorded was grown in Athens, Ohio and measured eighteen inches in diameter.
Today, the Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area Program sponsors an annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival at scenic Lake Snowden in Albany, Ohio, featuring three fun filled days of music, food, contests, art, workshops, and other events for young and old alike.
Although there is renewed interest in their development, large-scale production of pawpaws has not been successful, because the fruit is easily bruised, highly perishable, and does not ship well. The season for pawpaw fruit is typically late August through September. If you are fortunate to be in Ohio or Kentucky (or another state in which the fruit grows) during that time of the year, you can likely find pawpaws in local farmers’ markets or you can forage your own. Others can purchase fruit or pulp online.