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A passion for pawpaws

Thursday, September 18, 2003

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

LAKE SNOWDEN, Ohio -- Hint: A pawpaw is not a Division 2 football team. One bite of this fruit and you wonder why this taste of the tropics isn't in every grocery store.

James Cochran brings along pawpaw fruit from his family's trees in Amesville, Ohio, to the Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Lake Snowden, Ohio. The pawpaw is a North American tropical-tasting fruit, though found far from the tropics. (Jackie Belden Hawthorne photos for the Post-Gazette)

If you go...To Pawpaw country

Where to get

Integration Acres, 160 Cherry Ridge Road, Albany, Ohio. 1-740-698-2124 or Integration Acres specializes in the pawpaw. Fresh pawpaws cost $5 a pound, and frozen puree is $12 for a 2-pound package, plus shipping.

Web site, Dr. Kirk Pomper's research on the pawpaw.

Three reasons:

1. Pawpaws, also spelled papaw, are not the prettiest face on the plate. They're speckled, they're splotchy, and the riper they get, the uglier. It's too bad the name ugli fruit is already taken.

2. Their shelf life is short, maybe two or three days, a week in the refrigerator. Pawpaw lovers find 'em, wash 'em and eat 'em, spitting seeds all the way.

3. Pawpaws have had such a low profile that hardly anybody knows what they are, let alone have met one.

Once hidden under a canopy of trees in the wild, the pawpaw is now coming out into the open. Last weekend, more than 3,000 folks from as far away as Romania gathered in the autumn sunshine at Lake Snowden near Albany, Ohio, to celebrate the pawpaw and try to figure out how to grow the trees successfully and create a market niche.

Explorer Hernando DeSoto may have observed the Indians in the Missouri River Valley using them back in 1504, but today people even disagree on when they're ripe, says Chris Chmiel, who started the Ohio Pawpaw Festival five years ago. "The old-timers won't eat them until they're black," he said.

Three reasons to try a pawpaw or three:

1. For a testimonial, we defer to Meriwether Lewis, who passed through here nearly 200 years ago: "September 15, 1806 -- We landed one time only to let the men gather Pawpaws or the custard apple of which this country abounds, and the men are very fond of."

2. The yellow, sweet, custardy pawpaw ripens with a mystical pungency, redolent with the flavor of mango, banana and pineapple -- a tropical fruit far from the tropics. Some have an aftertaste of melon. A ripe pawpaw can be eaten right off the tree -- just slice, squeeze and slurp -- or used in dishes, from Pawpaw BBQ Sauce to Pawpaw Ice Cream, which is a delightful dessert that I first tasted at a Lewis and Clark dinner at the Pines Tavern in April.

3. If pawpaw aficionados have their way, their favorite fruit, an oldie-but-goodie that the American Indians have enjoyed for centuries, will become the Next Big Thing, perhaps the kiwi of the 2000s. Besides, the fruit the pioneers called custard apple and that today is known by names such as Shenandoah, Pennsylvania Golden and Sunflower is good for us -- three times as much vitamin C as an apple, twice as much riboflavin as an orange, twice as much niacin as an orange and about the same potassium as a banana. In fact, it's sometimes called the "poor man's banana." High in magnesium, iron, manganese and copper, it's a good way to imbibe protein, too -- pawpaws contain all essential amino acids.

Judgment day

Casey Buchanan, 10, of Athens, Ohio, chomps down during the pawpaw eating contest. Contestants must compete without using their own paws. (Jackie Belden Hawthorne photos for the Post-Gazette)

Saturday was the first time Fred Dailey, executive director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, had ever tasted pawpaws, which have competed in hotly contested competitions as far back as 1917, according to an article unearthed in the Journal of Heredity. In that first contest, 70 pawpaws competed for a prize of $100. There were a baker's dozen in last weekend's competition.

Sweet Ashley, which arrived hard as a rock, never even got a taste, though.

"Don't eat this one!" warns Chmiel, one of the rare producers who sells pawpaws fresh in season and frozen pulp the rest of the time. "It's not ripe."

He cut Ashley open to show a white flesh rather than the golden meat of the perfectly ripe pawpaw. When the fruit is ready for picking, it yields when pressed with a finger and snaps off easily at the stem.

Chmiel introduced Dailey to the crowd as a "pawpaw virgin," one of a panel of three judges that included Amy Viny, a Cleveland freelance food writer, and me. Viny had tasted pawpaws before and was designated a "novice," as was I, who minutes earlier had enjoyed a hurried taste from the hand of a California grower. Sitting in the back of a steaming lecture tent, I wondered where to drop the pawpaw peel and seeds. Unlike a used Kleenex, the sopping skin left after the puree is sucked away is not fit for a pocket. If we drop these seeds, will they grow?

We judges knew what we liked but wondered and worried. "This isn't very scientific," said Dailey, who wore a white cowboy hat and a big smile the whole day long.

I figured the sponsoring Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association just wanted a "consumer" point of view. That's what it got. We were amazed at the range of flavors and smells from Asimina triolba. Viny went for the pineapple-y flavor of what was called the Flat Rock, as in Illinois, while I gave high marks to the Colgate, dubbed the "Hoosier banana."

Dailey and I agreed on the winning pawpaw -- Quaker Delight, named after the Friends who founded Wilmington College, where it was developed. The contest was a way to identify good-tasting fruit to propagate in the future. Prizes of $100, $50 and $25 were awarded.

Pawpaw's potential

Pawpaw may not be the path to fortune anytime soon, though its potential brought the University of Bucharest's Anna Rosu, who has her doctorate in biology, to Ohio last weekend. She thought pawpaws might be a promising crop for her native Romania. "It's not easy to get here," she said. "There's only one Greyhound a day." She and her journalist husband planned to join the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association in an effort to learn more.

They've come to the right place. The largest known pawpaw -- 18 inches in diameter -- grows in Athens, Ohio.

One font of knowledge at the festival was Neal Peterson, who said he was "bit by the pawpaw bug" in 1976. By 1981 his hobby turned into, some would say, an obsession. "I lost my shirt" in the pawpaw business, he said. He left his government job, cashed in his retirement and used his savings to move to West Virginia to grow 3,000 trees. The drought of 1999 did him in -- the worst since 1936 -- and now he's trying his hand at selling pawpaws the trees, rather than pawpaws the fruit.

"I'm selling three of my best trees today," he said. Not the trees themselves, but grafted varieties such as Susquehanna.

There is still scientific work to be done. "The pawpaws that grow in the wild are 15 to 25 percent seeds," said Peterson. "Nobody would buy them."

A mature tree may produce 30 or 40 fruits, and a one-pound pawpaw is a big'un. More typical is a 5-ounce or 8-ounce pawpaw.

Growers suggest pawpaws as a landscape tree, but Saturday we overheard many people say their trees looked great, but the fruit often didn't show up.

Pawpaws are pollinated by flies and beetles, said Dr. Kirk W. Pomper of Kentucky State University, home of the world's only full-time research project on the pawpaw. "We have lots of cattle on the farm, so pollination is not a problem," he said with a laugh.

Like peaches, Pomper said, pawpaw blossoms are sensitive to frost, and trees should be grown on hillsides, rather than in valleys, where cold air tends to collect. The fruit grow in clusters and each ripens at its own speed.

"For two months, you might be picking the same tree every two or three days," he said. "You can't expect the same kind of high yields as apple trees."

Irrigation is probably a must for commercial production, and most pawpaw pulp would probably be sold as frozen puree.

Because of its fragility and short shelf life, the future of the pawpaw may be in one farmer, one farmstand, a limited supply at premium prices. This fall supplies are short and late because of the cool, rainy spring. Last year pawpaws were going for $8 a pound; this year it's $10 in some places.

Sweet rewards

Melani W. Duffrin of Ohio University in Athens has researched using pawpaw pulp as a fat-reducer in recipes, much as prune puree and applesauce have been used. She passed out a cake baked with pawpaw puree. Its quality was good and it disappeared quickly.

"A pawpaw is a very individual thing as far as sweetness," she said. "And the pulp can be thin or viscous. As production increases, using pawpaws for reducing fat may be a way to use lower-quality fruit."

Joyce Brown of Ohio State University Extension outlined safety tips. She suggested washing pawpaws with water, agitating the fruit in your hands as it's washed. "We don't recommend washing in antibacterial soap," she said. "Research has found it only kills 1 percent or 2 percent more bacteria than hand-washing in water. And the soap often comes in pump containers, which can harbor more bacteria."

The winning dessert in the cookoff was Pawpaw Cream Cake, which featured pawpaw filling, black walnuts and a meringue top. Its creator was Sharon Phillips, of Ohio University FoodMASTER (Math and Science Teaching Enhance Resources). Phillips uses cooking techniques to teach math and science to gifted students.

She was ecstatic when presented her plaque, and her cake produced many ooohs and aaahs.

Recipes were submitted on everything from brown lunch bags to formal entry forms. The winners were in four categories, which also included breads, beverages (there was a beautiful pawpaw soda and hot pawpaw tea) and sauces. (I liked the sweet Pawpaw Chile Sauce, which reminded me of Hawaii.) The challenge was making the pawpaw flavor come through.

It came through beautifully in the Pawpaw Pecan Pie, which was stupendous.

A day in pawpaw land was enough to make a person head for the woods in search of the fruit, which may eventually come to a farmers' market near you. If you're searching in the woods, keep an eye out for the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly, which lives on pawpaws.

Any fruit memorialized in Walt Disney's "The Jungle Book" is worth spitting a few seeds over. In the "Bare Necessities" song, who will forget Baloo the Bear comparing what it's like to pick a prickly pear rather than snatching a pawpaw:

"... you don't need to use a claw when you pick a pair of big pawpaws."


Leslie Mansfield writes in "The Lewis & Clark Cookbook: Historic Recipes from the Corps of Discovery & Jefferson's America": "Pawpaws have a flavor that can best be described as a creamy tropical custard. Hence their other name -- custard apple. A favorite of the men of the Corps during their travel through Ohio, pawpaws grow wild in about 25 other states east of the Mississippi River." (That includes Pennsylvania.) This was the ice cream served at the dinner honoring Mansfield at the Pines Tavern.

  • 2 cups pawpaw puree, thawed if frozen
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup sugar

Place the pawpaw puree in a bowl and set aside. In a heavy saucepan, stir together the cream, milk and sugar. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Slowly pour the cream mixture into the pawpaw puree, whisking to blend. Cover with plastic wrap and completely chill in the refrigerator. Pour the cold mixture into an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer's instructions.

Makes about 1 1/2 quarts.


  • 1 two-layer white cake mix, prepared according to package directions
  • 2 3-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup butter-flavored Crisco
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup pawpaw pulp
  • 2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1 slightly beaten egg white (see note)
  • Dash salt
  • 1 recipe Belle's Diner Meringue (recipe follows)
  • 2 large bags black walnut pieces (about 1 pound)

Belle's Diner Meringue:

  • 5 egg whites
  • 2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar

For meringue: Beat egg whites in electric mixer until soft peaks form. Add cornstarch and sugar until stiff peaks form. Spread meringue on top of one baked cake layer. Bake in 350-degree oven for 5 minutes. Remove from oven; cool.

Prepare frosting: Mix cream cheese, shortening, vanilla, pawpaw pulp, egg white, confectioners' sugar and salt. Whip well.

Place remaining layer of baked cake on plate.

Spread 1/3 of frosting on cake layer. Sprinkle 1/3 of black walnuts on top of frosting. Place meringue-topped layer on top of frosted layer. Spread rest of frosting on outside of cake, leaving meringue topping as is. Press walnuts into frosting.

Note: Because of the danger of salmonella in uncooked eggs, you can reduce risk for the very young, very old or those with weakened immune systems by using pasteurized egg whites.

Sharon Phillips, Little Hocking, Ohio


This is an example of how to use pawpaw puree as a fat-reducer in a recipe.

  • 2 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup 2-percent milk
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon soy oi
  • 1/2 cup pawpaw puree

Mix flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, mix milk, egg whites, vanilla, soy oil and pawpaw puree.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and hand-mix for 17 strokes using a wooden spoon.

Lightly coat air-bake muffin tins with vegetable oil and scoop the batter into the pans.

Bake the muffins at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

Meleni W. Duffrin, Ohio University


This pie was made by Annette Chmiel, the mother of Ohio Pawpaw Festival organizer Chris Chmiel, whose wife, the former Michelle Gorman, grew up in Regent Square.

  • 1 unbaked pie shell
  • Bottom layer:
  • 1 cup pawpaw puree
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice

Beat egg with pawpaw puree. Add other ingredients. Spread into pie shell.

Top layer:

  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup pecan halves

Beat eggs until frothy. Add corn syrup, sugar and melted butter. Mix lightly. Stir in vanilla and pecan halves. Pour over pawpaw layer.

Bake in 350-degree oven for 50 minutes. Cool.

Suzanne Martinson can be reached at or 412-263-1760.

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