I have a confession. A year ago Green Bean Delivery first introduced me to the magnificent fruit that is the pawpaw, and my world hasn’t been the same since. How could this delectable and obscure foraged gem make such an imprint on me? I’m captivated. So much so, this past weekend I headed east from Indianapolis to attend the 24th Annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Albany, Ohio. Yep; this fruit is so revered, it deserves a three-day long celebration. Here’s how it went!
A brief rundown of the pawpaw
First of all, let me share some background knowledge on what a pawpaw is and isn’t. A pawpaw is a unique fruit native to the Midwest that’s tropical in flavor with a creamy, custard-like texture. It is not a banana. It is not a mango. And yet, if you close your eyes, you’d swear you were eating just that. In fact, it’s often referred to as, “The Hoosier Banana.” Pawpaws have a pear-like outer skin that’s bitter and should be discarded along with the inner seeds when indulging. (Think of a much smaller durian fruit without that pungent sour smell.) Because this fruit is not grown commercially given its shelf-life is 3-5 days, pawpaws are regaining popularity as a highly sought-after specialty product while remaining quite elusive.
How do you get your paws on pawpaws?
1.) Grow your own pawpaw orchard! Warning: This is a labor of love and a huge time investment. From seedlings, it could take 5-8 years to produce fruit, whereas grafting would yield fruit in 3-5 years. Not to mention, pests equally love pawpaws—squirrels, skunks, chipmunks, opossums—so be prepared to battle. Wondering where you can even purchase grafted pawpaw trees? Check out Brambleberry Farm in Paoli, Indiana.
2.) Buy them! You could drive to the next Ohio Pawpaw Festival, or simply order them locally from Green Bean Delivery who partners with Eli Creek Family Farms.
3.) Forage them! Good luck finding these in the wild, though, for two reasons—a.) pawpaw season is extremely short with a window between September-October, and b.) it takes two genetically different trees for pollination and fruiting to occur. If you do happen to stumble on a pawpaw patch, here are some tips for picking the perfect pawpaw.1
- Do a wiggle test—if the fruit is rigid, leave it be. If there’s some give, the fruit is ripening.
- Pawpaws are delicate and bruise very easily, so avoid squeezing the fruit to test for ripeness.
- First look for fallen fruit. If spotted, that’s a sign the rest of the tree’s fruit may begin to ripen soon.
- Yellowing skin indicates ripening in certain varieties.
- Sunny patches with good soil will ripen more quickly as opposed to shadier ones.
- Under ripe fruit is firm and has a greenish hue and whitish waxy skin. If picked, it will not ripen.
- Never shake a tree. Where the fruit joins the stem is where it ripens first, so a good indicator is if the stem separates from the fruit gently, leaving an aromatic, fleshy opening, it’s ripe. If the stem breaks, exposing a white, odorless fruit, it is unripe and unlikely to ripen.
- Lastly, refrigerate fruit immediately after harvesting.
Pawpaws served every which way
Ok, back to the festival. I didn’t know what to expect apart from studying the detailed schedule of events. Gates opened at 10 AM on Saturday and they were anticipating 10,000 pawpaw fanatics that day alone. There were vendor booths galore, presenters, food trucks who agreed to serve food on compostable service-ware only, live musicians doing what they do best on a solar powered stage, artists, beer tents, and on-site research (more on that later) all amidst an open countryside near Lake Snowden surrounded by nature and happy campers.
Are you ready for this? Here’s a taste of the innovative foods you could experience:
- Pawpaw waffle on a stick
- Pawpaw cotton candy
- Pawpaw funnel cake topped with powdered sugar and pawpaw coulis
- Pawpaw ketchup
- Pawpaw vegan ranch
- Pawpaw mousse
- Pawpaw gingerdoodle
- Pawpaw lemonade
- Pawpaw southwest chicken
- Pawpaw deep fried cheesecake
- Pawpaw moonshine BBQ
- Pawpaw caramel chiller and yogurt parfaits from Snowville Creamery
- And last, but not least, pawpaw beer! Pawpaweizen, anyone?
Can you grow pawpaws in the city? Yes. Yes, you can.
Hungry to learn more about this fascinating fruit, I sat in on the presentation, “A Guide to Growing Pawpaws in a Small Space with Urban Farmer Justin Husher of North American Pawpaw Growers Association.” Despite what I mentioned earlier about the challenges with growing your own pawpaw orchard (which I learned from this fun lecture), I’m still determined to give it a go. In seven years, Husher, who resides in Lakewood, Ohio, has put in two micro orchards which produce 20 pounds of fruit on the daily during peak season. Sold at $10.00 per pound, that’s not a bad side business. There is another catch, however. The average life of a grafted tree is 20-25 years until you’ll need to replant. To put that into perspective, a commercial peach orchard’s trees last 12 years.
Husher also rattled off a ton of great flowers to plant near your trees to create, as he put it, “bonkers pollination.”
- Purple and white prairie clover
- Black-eyed Susans
- New England asters
- Lead plant
Who’s the artist behind the beloved festival graphics?
About seven years ago when I laid eyes on the Snowville Creamery logo, I was instantly enamored. Always wondered who was behind the design. Well, now I know! It turns out it was a locally known Ohio artist by the name of Kevin Morgan, who’s also responsible for the festival’s poster and t-shirt design. I encourage you to check out all his work!
Participating in a pawpaw experiment for science
Next, I found myself assisting in a research study conducted by Ohio State University. I was provided three pawpaw puree samples total, and told to capture my likes and dislikes while also rating the bitterness and sweetness characteristics of each. So, in the future if you find yourself enjoying the best tasting pawpaw variety ever, you may have me to thank. (Or rather, the scientists working on this cool initiative.)
Zero waste festival policy
At the end of the day, one of the most impressive sights I witnessed was the Zero Waste volunteer crew working hard to separate trash from compostables from recycling. These were efforts to reach a zero waste to landfill at this year’s fest in partnership with Rural Action. Pawpaws for the planet!
Take a look at these 2019 stats from the festival’s website:
With an 87.534% diversion rate, the Ohio Pawpaw Festival diverted 2,968 pounds of waste from the landfill!
- Compost – 1,856.6 lbs; 55%
- Recycling – 811.7 lbs; 24%
- Trash – 423 lbs; 12%
- Reusable cups helped to keep almost 300 pounds of material from the landfill!
The pawpaw draw
Pawpaws are more than a delightful fruit. They have the ability to spark a deep curiosity into learning more about the fascinating subculture surrounding it. Ultimately, I’m excited there’s a supportive community rallying to preserve the pawpaw’s history and legacy, while also improving accessibility and the nature of the fruit itself.
Makes me think—having only been acquainted with pawpaws for a brief time, what other unusual foods have gone under my radar?
- A Guide to Improving Native Pawpaw Patches. Integration Acres Ltd. Albany, Ohio.
About the Author
Julie Cluggish is the Associate Creative Director at Green Bean Delivery. You can find her at the sweet spot where design, food, and community overlap, which explains why she was at the pawpaw festival. She’s back now, and working to bring good things your way.