Pawpaws: America’s Forgotten Fruit

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.

Buy Em: Heritage Foods, Earthy Delights, Paw Paw Fruit

Make Em: Pawpaw Bread, Pawpaw Preserves, Pawpaw Pie

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Mac and Cheese: America’s Favorite Comfort Food

The first known recipe for a macaroni and cheese casserole was recorded as far back as thirteenth century Italy. In the medieval cookbook Liber de Coquina, the anonymous author describes layering sheets of lasagne with powdered spices and cheese (likely parmesan) of choice. This recipe (called de lasanis), while certainly not the same as the modern version of macaroni and cheese, is none the less a viable predecessor.

As with many of today’s foods, the exact origin of macaroni and cheese has been lost over time. The most popular story is that this cuisine made its way to the United States by way of Thomas Jefferson who experienced numerous pasta dishes while in both Paris and northern Italy. When he returned to Monticello in 1787, he brought back a pasta machine so he could continue to enjoy the dishes he had grown to love.

Documents in the Library of Congress show that President Jefferson enjoyed serving “macaroni pie,” an earlier version of what we know as baked macaroni and cheese, to guests at state dinners. While he certainly did not invent the recipe, this helped popularize it throughout American, and the American South in particular.

The 1824 edition of the century’s most influential cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, written by Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph, includes a recipe for “Macaroni and Cheese.” It contains only three ingredients–macaroni, cheese, and butter–layered together and baked in a 400-degree oven. By the mid 1880s, recipes for macaroni-based casseroles appeared in numerous cookbooks as far west as Kansas.

The first pasta factory opened in Philadelphia in 1798, although it wasn’t until after the Civil War, with the development of the hydraulic press, steam-powered mill and the influx of Italian immigrants , that America’s pasta-making business started to grow. Still, many of the affluent families continued to import pasta from Europe. It took World War I and the resulting halt of imports, to have a major impact on this new American industry. The number of pasta factories almost doubled between 1914 and 1919.

In 1937, during the throes of the Great Depression, Kraft Foods introduced boxed macaroni and cheese. The company’s advertising slogan “make a meal for four in nine minutes,” resulted in an immediate success, and sales of over eight million nineteen-cent boxes of the product in one year. With the advent of World War II, Kraft’s boxed macaroni and cheese dinners continued to gain popularity due to its convenience and a shortage of fresh dairy products.

Today, chefs all across this great nation are putting creative twists on this popular comfort food, elevating it to a dish worthy of being served in the finest of restaurants. While still a mainstay of college student cuisine, there are now variations substituting brie and goat cheese for the familiar cheddar-based sauce; rotini and farfalle for elbows; and the addition of exotic mushrooms, caramelized onions, figs, and proscuitto.

There are even restaurants serving only macaroni and cheese, such as S’Mac in Manhattan’s East Village, NY ($7.75 to $10.75); Homeroom in Oakland, CA ($7.75 to $9.50); Cheese-Ology in University City, MO ($7 to $8.50); Macdaddy’s in Denton, TX (prices not listed).

So whether you go for the old standby mac and cheese common to barbecue and soul food establishments across the south, or hanker to try one of the gourmet varieties in a big-city sit-down restaurant, or just feel like enjoying the boxed version microwaved in your own home, know you’re in good company, because everyone from 3 to 103 loves macaroni and cheese–America’s most popular comfort food.

Try Em: (Top six mac & cheese brands) Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Annie’s Elbows & Four Cheese Sauce, Clear Value Shells and Cheese, Krasdale Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, Hodgson Mills Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, Pasta Roni Shells & White Cheddar

Make Em: Old-Fashioned Macaroni and Cheese, Fannie Farmer’s Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese, President Ronald Reagan’s Mac and Cheese