Book Review: PawPaw Hunting

Moore, Andrew. Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Lost Fruit. (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) Kindle Edition.

“Pickin’ up pawpaws/ put ’em in the basket…” That was about all I knew of pawpaws, a children’s song, other than the fact that they are a fruit and are not papaya. Andrew Moore’s entertaining book is an extended meditation and study on pawpaws, a tropical fruit that grows as far north as Ontario, Canada, a native fruit that people never heard of, and an object of mild obsession for people in the Midwest and Upper South.

Pawpaws are descended from tropical plants marooned on North America and that gradually adapted to the climate of shady uplands and river forests. They produce a soft-fleshed fruit that doesn’t travel well, and that is only available for a month at most. If you eat them out of season, either too green or too ripe, they are “a powerful emetic.” The fruit tastes like bananas, or mangoes, or custard, or just like pawpaw. And therein lies the story of Moore’s search for the plant and the perfect pawpaw fruit.

The book meanders a bit like the Mississippi. It starts with the plant, and the different people who are trying to bring pawpaws to greater notice. The fruit seems to inspire obsession and love among its fans. It is an “old fashioned” fruit, a survival food that people gathered in the wild, along with persimmons, nuts, spiceberry, and other native plants. No one thought much about them, they just ate. But by the late 1900s, pawpaws seemed to be disappearing from food culture as well as from the forests.

As it turns out, all was not lost. Several people had tried to improve the pawpaw and to find ways to preserve the fruit, or to breed varieties that shipped better than did the wild fruit. University extension agents, botanists, private individuals with an interest in the fruit, all formed a network of pawpaw perfectionists. Moore tells that story and does it well, with a fair amount of wry humor. After all, you don’t know what you will get until your tree is at least six years old. And you have to have at least two trees, because they don’t self pollinate, although pawpaws will clone themselves (like aspen trees do). But clone pawpaws don’t bear as much fruit, or as sweet of a fruit. And the wood is brittle. And shipping costs a lot of money because of the fragility of the fruit.

Moore wanders around the US and through history, going backwards through time as well as across the landscape, working back to the Native Americans and their use of pawpaws. Along the way he munches through pounds of the fruit, sometimes savoring it, sometimes disappointed. He meets pawpaw enthusiasts, permanent-farming pioneers, scientists looking at pawpaws for chemotherapy possibilities, chefs who want to add something new to their menus, and folks who guard the secret location of their wild pawpaw patches. Like mushroom hunters, pawpaw hunters are happy to share their find, but also like mushroom hunters, they tend to be canny about telling outsiders the exact source of their bounty.

This isn’t a straight history of pawpaws, and there are not many recipes. It does include a list of nurseries that sell pawpaw trees, and what kinds are available. Pawpaws need moist, acid soil, in places with some shade but not too much, and without heavy storms and hurricanes. So I won’t be planting pawpaw trees in my yard anytime soon (limited shade, alkaline soil, no moisture, lots of wind).

The book is a nice, easy read. It’s a good introduction to a lot of topics, not just pawpaws, and the bibliography provides more specialized sources. If you are interested in folklore of food, American foodways, permaculture farming, or just curious about the oddly-named fruit, this is a fun book.

FTC Note: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the publisher or author for this review.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: PawPaw Hunting

  1. I have a good friend from the Midwest with this obsession. His pawpaw are now beginning to bear. The trees need shade for the first couple years, until they grow above the brush layer. That book’s a Christmas present choice. Thanks for the quick note.

  2. Not enough coffee.

    I see “PawPaw” and wonder if there’s a “MaMa” tree. 😉

  3. All this time and I thought pawpaws was just the old/hillbilly way of saying papaya. I have read of them in several western/frontier stories, but just assumed it was a different spelling of papaya.

    • Pawpaw is a word in several African languages for the papaya. It is also close in sound to some of the Native American names for the tree and fruit. It is probable that Europeans who had seen the African papaya thought the pawpaw looked similar. Sort of like the North American robin and the European robin.

  4. I have never had a pawpaw, sadly. I have had American plums, which are kinda fun. The Shawnee have a “plum moon” in their calendar, which I never had understood until then.

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