Sudden Death, Over Time: Steeler Graves

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Robert K. James, Allegheny Cemetery

In the great Autumn campaign that is each of our lives, we’ll inevitably begin to feel those last seconds of the final game tick off the clock. We can all hope to make it deep into the playoffs–heck, some may even get lucky enough to reach this preposterous metaphor’s Super Bowl. But even with the very best “clock management,” we’re all heading toward a long long off-season in the sky at some point.

matching graves with Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Stacy and Stephen Slanina, Allegheny Cemetery

Forever, the Purple One reminds us, is a mighty long time. It’s likely, though, that The Prince was not thinking about funeral arrangements when he urged us all to “go crazy.” So I’m sure it’s with no small amount of consideration that most folks choose the design and ornament of a gravestone–either for oneself (if he or she likes to plan ahead) or for the loved one the family is burying (more likely?).

Why, there’s the stone itself, available in any number of shapes, sizes, finishes, and flourishes. There’s the text–a full name, sometimes with a favorite nickname, birth and death dates*, and then any manner of other possibilities: pithy epitaphs, Bible verses, embedded portraits, etched images both representational (occupations, avocations) and ornamental (flowers, angels, religious insignia).

grave marker with Steelers logo, St. Michael's Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jack W. Springer, St. Michael’s Cemetery

If the deceased happened to champion a particularly well-loved, black-and-gold-hued eleven, chances are maybe better than you’d think that the emblem of said N.F.L. franchise will end up etched into his or her headstone. This act of committing and commemorating the deceased to eternity as a devoted Steeler fanatic lets the living know that while still tripping on this mortal coil he or she bled (hopefully not, you know, all the way out) black and gold.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers flag, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Marie and Jim Coyner, Allegheny Cemetery

It’s a curious choice. Steelers fans would never admit it, but sports franchises are transient things. Pittsburgh has been fortunate to never have one of its teams skip town, but we’re only 80-some years into professional football history–there’s still a lot of time for a lot of things to happen.

Are there graves in Baltimore or Brooklyn or Hartford with Colts, Dodgers, and Whalers logos carved into them? I doubt it, but only because those moves all happened before the relatively recent phenomena of having one’s passions preserved in stone**. But what about St. Louis–are there fresh graves just set with Rams insignia marking them? Possibly…maybe even probably. What an indignity to give one’s afterlife to a team that just high-tailed it back to Los Angeles.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Roman L. Bryant, Allegheny Cemetery

It makes you wonder if this happens everywhere. This blogger can certainly imagine the same level of devotion from fans of the Boston Red Sox or Montreal Canadiens or Green Bay Packers. But what about Cleveland or Cincinnati? They’ve got their own rabid fans, but are there Browns and Bengals graves? We sure hope not–life on earth following these teams was already Hell, why take that misery with you?

upright gravestone with Steelers logo, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Frederick J. Brown, Highwood Cemetery

What about even more marginal sports territories? Is there anyone in Seattle or San Jose that cares enough about the Seahawks or the Sharks to tattoo it on a gravestone? Does most of North Carolina, Florida, or Texas even know they have hockey teams? What monument maker could carve the offensive Cleveland Indian or Washington “redskin” into stone in good faith? I don’t even want to look at the terrible Anaheim “mighty duck”, let alone get buried under it.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jeffrey L. Turner, Allegheny Cemetery

All that said, the good people of Pittsburgh are quite comfortable with this option. It wouldn’t be my choice, but I’m glad it is for some. Studying the cemetery is like anything else where we see changes in culture reflected over time. In many ways, future generations will know more about us now from these Steeler graves (as well as the other custom designs and embedded images) than we can derive from their much more opulent 19th century ancestors. At least, they’ll know we (Pittsburgh) sure liked football. On that, they’ll be correct.

gravestone with large Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Kevin Washington, Sr., Highwood Cemetery

* Coming across the occasional stone with no death date is always intriguing. We assume these are just folks who plan farther ahead than Orbit staff, but you never know.
** You’ll note that all photos are from graves dating from 2002 onward. We don’t know when monument makers began offering these kind of options, but almost all of the custom personal interest imagery seems to come from the 1990s-present.

Union Dale Cemetery: The Lamb Lies Down on Baahway

iron grave marker of a lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


Union Dale Cemetery‘s Division Three, Section b (yes: that’s a lower-case b) lies waaay in the back, at a high point in the park, bordered by treelined fencing that separates the property from nearby Presley Ridge School. Section b is so far removed that it doesn’t even appear on the cemetery’s online maps*.

But if you can make it out to Union Dale’s far northeast outpost, the tell-tale shapes of lambs popping up on gravestones and laying down in the grass will tell you you’ve reached the right spot. The creatures will be calmly resting, their little lamb ears pointing out at the sides. Each one of them will face the same direction.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Wm. B. Henderson

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jane Lee Blumfeldt

Listen here: when we shoot the sheep, we’re not talking about any jive-ass 2-D cutaways or bas relief lambs, either–though there’s plenty of those loitering on newer stones in the same neighborhood. No, this is full-on, worn-to-nubs marble and granite lambitude.

Two of the specimens (Kirk and Klein, photos below) seem to be the same general make and model, but otherwise each gravestone is unique. That’s not to say the lambs don’t look alike–they do–but there’s enough variance here to suggest these weren’t simply off-the-shelf lamb-on-a-box markers.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Ralph A. Klein

Jennie Benford, our Concierge to the Dead, says “The lambs were very popular but almost exclusively for children’s markers.” The Internet backs her up on this claim, as does the anecdotal evidence of the dates we can see on the (still-legible) stones here. The deceased were all between months and just a few years old when they arrived at Union Dale and given the concentration in this one small area, we have to wonder if Section b was earmarked as plot for children.

The association of lambs with the death of children has a number of explanations, but the most common seems to this passage from the Bible:

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.  — John 1:29

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

June Ann Reese

There are other similarities. Every one of the markers (that we’re able to read) is dated from the same decade. Jennie assures us “The lamb stones are not strictly 1920s–I’ve seen them used much earlier than that and for some time after,” but it’s an interesting data point.

The lamb is always sculpted alone and awake, but in a resting position with its legs folded underneath. I imagine there is a practical aspect to this–sculpting those spindly legs from delicate marble is likely very expensive and accident-prone. That said, one has to accept that the feeling of innocence is even more pronounced with the gentle creature in repose. What could be more harmless and vulnerable than a kneeling fluffy white lamb?

Perhaps most curious, every single lamb faces to the left (as the visitor faces the stone)**. Now, that may just be a coincidence in our small sample, but if so, it’s equal to flipping “heads” ten times in a row. Still, reading any dramatic symbolism into facing left vs. right seems like a major stretch. Left, in this case, is also north, since all the stones face the same direction–west, or downhill and towards the only small access road. Again: likely not a planned coordination.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Catherine Achey

Union Dale Cemetery is an intimidating place to explore. It covers a huge area–likely equal to the size of Allegheny Cemetery or many (larger) city neighborhoods. The full plot is divided by Brighton Road and Marshall Avenue/Rt. 19, which effectively turns the park into three separate cemeteries. [Union Dale labels each of these a division.]

It’s hard to imagine there’s any best or worst way to take in Union Dale for the newcomer. That said, like so many things in life–or, it seems, in death–there’s nothing wrong with ending up at Plan b.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

John Buckalynn

* Section b should not be confused with Section B, right by the entrance. Also, it looks like Union Dale’s PDF maps may have a page 2 that just didn’t make it to the web site.
** Two of the markers photographed are simply freestanding sculptures without an engraved headstone, so there is no left or right.

Allegheny Cemetery: Mausoleum Stained Glass

mausoleum stained glass with pentagram, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


Seeing the world through the Orbit eye. Those words came to us a while back from superfan Lee, and we accept it as the ultimate compliment. Lee still requires corrective eyewear–so be warned that Pittsburgh Orbit is no substitute for Lasik–but we think we know what he was getting at.

If Orbit “reporting” has taught us anything at all, it’s to always take another look. Lose the expectations and open up the senses. Point those peepers everywhere you can: down the alley, around the corner, on the pavement, up in the telephone wires, and through the crack in the window. Like Irene Cara said: take your pants off and make it happen. What a feeling, indeed.

broken mausoleum stained glass with sitting woman and field of flowers, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

James M. Miller

mausoleum stained glass of oil lamp hanging in arched window with columns, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown (possibly Krey, based on nearby cenotaph)

One of those spots, attentive Orbit readers will have anticipated by now, is through the thick barred grates, cobwebbed glass, and musky air of the ornate mausoleums at our historic cemeteries. Pittsburgh is sitting on a bunch of these.

This blogger has walked through, bicycled around, picnicked in, and shutterbugged Allegheny Cemetery literally hundreds of times over the last couple decades. Allegheny’s collection of mausoleums isn’t quite as spectacular as the rock star ones we toured with Jennie Benford last year at Homewood, but it’s nothing to scoff at.

The mausoleums act as both beacons and exclamation points on the rolling landscape and much of the art deco and faux-Egyptian architecture is really astounding. But for whatever reason, we rarely ever took the opportunity to shade the eyes and poke the schnoz in to check out the interior spaces.

mausoleum stained glass with angel, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown (detail)

mausoleum shelves with trophies in front of colored glass, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


I’ll tell you: it’s not an easy thing to do. The average mausoleum–in Allegheny Cemetery, at least–seems to have a pair of thin, highly-decorated entry doors, each behind some version of vertical iron bars or decorative scrolled metalwork. Half the time, the original door locks are still in use, if not, there’s an awkward after-market steel chain and padlock lashed around whatever it can grab ahold of.

If you can see much inside, it’s typically a narrow passage, just wide enough for a person to turn around in, flanked by the celebrated residents’ crypts. Sometimes there’s just one of these on either side; others are stacked floor to ceiling. At the rear of almost every mausoleum is a stained glass window providing the only natural light outside of the shaded entry doors.

So to look inside a mausoleum is to peer through several layers of obfuscation, from the outside daylight into a darkened interior that may have had a hundred years since its last human visitor.

broken mausoleum stained glass with architectural design, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


mausoleum stained glass with angel in green tunic, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Wettengel (detail)

And what do we get to see in the stained glass? In a word: flowers–lots and lots of flowers. Flowers in vases, flowers in gardens, ornamental flowers, and flowers held by angels; lillies of the valley and daffodils of the foothills. We only included photos for a few of these; the flowers are quaint, but they’re just not that exciting.

Beyond the flora, however, there’s some pretty neat stuff. An old-school oil lamp dangles under an arched cathedral window with ghostly leaf shadows backlit from the outside; angels appear with painted-on faces, doe-eyed and calming; and, of course, in that chestnut of mortal symbolism, the sun sets over and over again in Mausoleumville.

There are also the broken panes. Windows whose heavy weight, coupled with a hundred years of un-climate-controlled Pennsylvania weather, eventually overburdened the lower sections. Individual colored pieces have popped out and cracked, leaving the windows looking like incomplete paint-by-numbers; the unimpeded sun’s glare the brightest element in the tiny space.

broken mausoleum stained glass with arch and white flowers, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Lillian Russell Moore

Is it worth a trip? Well, Allegheny Cemetery is absolutely worth all the time you can give it–even if you don’t want to squint into (silent film star) Lillian Russell‘s final repository. But while you’re there, yeah, you should neb into whoever’s crypt you can. The Sheets and the Kreys and the Sproal-Splanes don’t seem like they’re coming around anymore, but don’t worry; we’ve got that Orbit eye looking out for them.

The Pizza Chase: P&M Pizza, Arnold

child's head seen over a large pepperoni and olive pizza, P&M Pizza, Arnold, PA

Sunrise over Lake Cheese d’Orange. P&M Pizza, Arnold

American cheese. Have wars been fought for less? Probably. At least…maybe.

As far as we can determine, the story goes like this: The original P&M Pizza goes back to 1947 in Arnold. Owners Lefty and Mooney Martz ran the place for over fifty years before finally selling and retiring in the late 1990s[1]. During that half-century, P&M became a landmark to locals with its unique pizza, distinctive in both crust and cheese blend (we’ll get to these).

At some point during the end of their run, the Martz’ trademark recipe was sold and is now reproduced across the river at Phillippi’s Family Dining and Pizzeria in Natrona Heights. Phillippi’s has rebranded both the pizza style and the restaurant, now calling itself the “Home of the Birdville Pie.”[2] 

In the meantime, P&M was re-opened in the late aughts in the very same 5th Avenue building the Martz’ called home for half a century. The new owners–a pair of Arnold natives–now claim to serve “The Original P&M Pizza” and they clearly want to take back the glory of what they believe is rightfully theirs. P&M’s web site features the crossed-out image of Phillippi’s cartoon pizza-eating chicken aside the text Leave it for the birds! P&M will also accept your (Phillippi’s) “Birdville Pie” coupons.

whole pepperoni and black olive pizza from above, P&M Pizza, Arnold, PA

P&M pizza

Whose pizza is really the most original? We have no idea. Sadly, we never got the chance to have a P&M pie cooked up by the Martzes. The Internet seems, as Internets do, both divided and unreliably-sourced on the topic. Technology-savvy Orbit readers can seek out opinions of each on their own, but suffice to say there are many reviews for both restaurants that include the cliché “you either love it or hate it” as well as the predictable accusations of “NOT the original…”

Regardless of how exact either P&M or Phillippi’s recreates the Martz’ formula, it’s clear they’re both working from a similar set of blueprints. As Zomato user Akvalleyfoodman–a self-proclaimed “expert” who’s “eaten (original P&M’s) thousands and thousands of times” since the mid-60s–says (of P&M), they’re “in the same zip code.”[3]

Coming late to the party, we’re just glad that there are two different establishments carrying the torch for micro-crust ambiguously-cheesed bar pizza located within minutes drive of each other. The Martz’ legacy–however approximate it may be–is alive and well.

child holding nose as a piece of P&M pizza is offered to him

P&M pizza: it’s not for everyone

So how do the two pies stack up? It’s been almost a year since The Orbit checked in at Phillippi’s, so we’re running on pizza fumes here. That said, we can attest that the two pies are very similar–at least, to tastebuds from outside the Alle-Kiski Valley.

Both are built on exceptionally thin crusts. In the previous report, we stated that Phillippi’s is “as wafer-thin as this eater has ever experienced.” Well, that may have been true last year, but P&M’s crust makes Phillippi’s look like deep dish. The crust is so thin that the cornmeal used to keep the dough from sticking to the oven becomes a major factor in the flavor. A pita looks thick by comparison. Heck, a Triscuit would need to get planed down to be this thin. [Carb-conscious dieters take note: P&M is a place you can get the thrill of hot, delicious pizza and barely consume any bread at all.]

The other thing that makes both places seem incomprehensible to all who didn’t grow up in greater New Kensington is the “proprietary cheese blend”. It’s electric orange and obviously contains some high percentage of American “cheese.” Now, we can get all snobby about our fromage, but gosh darnit if it didn’t taste absolutely gooey-great in the combination that P&M cooked up. Just editing the included photos is making this blogger hungry all over again.

one slice of pizza on a paper plate, P&M Pizza, Arnold, PA

Wafer thin and golden orange: a single cut of P&M pizza.

So which pizza gets the Orbit nod–P&M’s “original” vs. Phillippi’s “Birdville Pie”? We don’t want to disparage either establishment and it’s safe to say the two pizzas have a lot more in common than not. It’s also fair that both are definitely “acquired tastes” that you may have had to ingest in the womb to truly love. Curious outsiders: you’ve been warned.

All that said, in our very unscientific experience, The Orbit‘s guests at Phillippi’s declared that while it was an interesting experience, they didn’t really ever need to have another Birdville Pie. I couldn’t talk any of the bunch into trying their cross-river rival for comparison. The same was not true at P&M, where the entire table (O.K. just two adults and one narrowly-converted youth) was ready to go back for more the next day. Advantage: P&M.

front window of P&M Pizza, Inc., Arnold, PA

Check out The Orbit‘s first half on this two-part Pizza Chase story: Phillippi’s, Home of the “Birdville Pie”.

[1] “P&M Pizza in Arnold delivers the classic goods”, 10 April, 2014,,
[2] Phillippi’s Family Restaurant and Pizzeria
[3] Zomato: P&M Pizza House, user reviews

Re:NEW Festival: DRAP-ART

Chinese temples made by artist Gao Yansong from recycled boxes

Gao Yansong “The Chinese Dream Marlboro” and “The Chinese Dream NIKE”

It can’t be easy to light up a brand new festival. Why, you’ve got to do a bunch of planning, organize volunteers, negotiate with venues, talk people into doing umpteen different things, write a grant, create a logo, secure a domain name, and then when the day–or month–finally rolls around, you can only cross your fingers and hope that somebody–anybody–is willing to give your goofy idea a shot. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

The folks that cooked-up this year’s Re:NEW Festival* weren’t mucking about. The festival spans a full month across a dozen different downtown venues, features a slew of staggered events, long-run gallery shows, lamppost banners, glossy printed materials, and of course, printed t-shirts. Oh, yeah–they also decided to stage the North American premier of a world-renowned international recycled art festival/organization, just so you’ll know they aren’t slacking.

sculpture of tiny skiers on lanscape of recycled circuit board by artist David Martin

David Martín “Ski” (detail)

pendant lamp created by artist Imanol Ossa from piano keys

Imanol Ossa “Piano XL Lamp”

From its web site, DRAP-ART is a Barcelona-based “association of artists who have chosen trash to be their material and/or conceptual resource.” Whether you want to call it recycled or repurposed or straight-up trash, (a term DRAP seems to have embraced) the non-standard (typically) mixed media is front-and-center in almost every piece in the show.

Bic pens and piano keys dangle from pendant lamps, a woman’s mod-inspired go-go dress is created with the pop-tops from aluminum cans and sewn with plastic bag “thread”. There are robots made from deconstructed office equipment and a school of tin can-fashioned fish. Phonograph records are laser cut into birds on telephone wires and brown paper bags become the canvas for ashen drawings of industrial Detroit. Bill Miller [the only local in the bunch and one of just two Americans] turns in an incredible wall-sized mosaic/collage of cut linoleum flooring.

landscape by Irene Wölfl created from recycled plastic

Irene Wölfl “Irgendwo” (detail)

sculpture of red fish created from recycled metal can by artist Orson Buch

Orson Buch “Red Fish”

Artists do this kind of stuff all the time, but what makes the DRAP-ART show so out-of-this-world is the level of craft and the deep exploration of the various recycled media. In these artists’ hands, the use of the discarded materials is no gimmick, but rather act as really great prompts to build truly extraordinary new and fantastic things.

We could go on, but suffice to say, it’s a fantastic and truly inspirational show that is thoroughly Orbit-approved. To use the hoity-toity argot of art academia, it’s a real sock-knocker-offer. In fact, right after seeing the show we ran out to buy some new socks. It’s that good.

detail from large mosaic by Bill Miller created with recycled linoleum flooring

Bill Miller “Steal Mill” (detail)

pendant lamp created from recycled Bic pens by artist Héctor Escudero

Héctor Escudero “PENcil”

Back to those festival organizers. This blogger knows it must have been a huge undertaking to put on and we have no insight into whether attendance and sponsorship made all that worthwhile. That said, not all successes can be measured with a calculator. So we’d just like say we sure hope this first Re:NEW festival can itself be renewed next–or, at least, some future–year. It’s a great idea for an art festival and Pittsburgh is a great place to host it. We hope the public is enjoying it as much as we are.

The Orbit will even go as far as to suggest a title for the come-back: Re:NEW : Re:DUX. Don’t even say anything. By the time you’re ready, it’ll sound great.

three-piece sculpture of square boxes with recycled fencing and bamboo by artist Felip Gaig

Felip Gaig “Els Horts de Sant Vicens”

portrait of Mary Cassatt made from egg cartons by artist Verónica Arellano

Verónica Arellano “Mary Stevenson Cassatt”

A note: We included way more photos in this piece than we normally do in a post, just because there is so much great stuff we’re excited about**. Even so, this is just a small portion of what’s actually set up, beautifully-presented, and even for sale over at the Wintergarden. The show ain’t over yet, but you need to shake a leg–it ends this Saturday. Get your kiester down there and see it for yourself while you still can.

Re:NEW Festival’s DRAP-ART show is at the PPG Wintergarden (PPG1, downtown), through next Saturday, Oct. 8. Admission is free.

sculpture made from recycled ironing board, silverware, and advertising image by artist Karol Bergeret

Karol Bergeret “Camarera” (detail)

* A large-scale collaboration between city arts, tourism, downtown, and reuse organizations including the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Carnegie Museum of Art, Andy Warhol Museum, Visit Pittsburgh, Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership, Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, Construction Junction, Goodwill, etc.
** And had a hard time not including yet another half dozen photos, but that would just be ridiculous.

Ghost House: East Liberty Farmers Market

Ghost house with giant pumpkin mural, Pittsburgh, PA

Under the pumpkin moon. The Sheridan Ave. ghost house.

If, nay, when Pittsburgh creates the Ghost House Hall-of-Fame, the imprint on the side of the East Liberty Farmers Market building will certainly be in the very first class of inductees.

It’s just got everything: the perfect lines, the front porch and rear addition details, the unpainted red brick as negative space against the larger building’s long pale yellow wall, luscious green wall-to-wall shag…grass–even an antenna (?) pointing up from the back porch.

There’s not a lot left to the imagination here. Look around town and you can still see standing houses just like this one all over the place. The two-up/two-down design is a pretty standard Pittsburgh row house shape. This one clearly had the very common early flat roof additions off the back, usually to bring the kitchen indoors and provide a bath and extra bedroom upstairs.

ghost garage, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost garage

Was it Bob Vila or The Torch Marauder who said: have you seen the back? If the main house wasn’t enough to talk you into this beauty, let me remind you it comes with a fully-dysfunctional two-car ghost garage. It’s nothing fancy–one story tall with a flat roof–but the depth (basically equal to the entire house!) suggests you could park a couple LeSabres, LeBarons, LeMans, or LeCars in there and still have room for le beer fridge, le wood shop, le ping pong table, and some extra le storage for your Hallowe’en decorations.

I can see what you’re thinking–this a little too much of a “fixer-upper” for me–am I right? Granted, the house needs some work–like, pretty much everything–but just imagine the possibilities! That, and it couldn’t be more conveniently located for a rehab job. This ghost property is literally right across the street from Home Depot. You can be in and out in the blink of an eye…just like a ghost.

ghost house and garage, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house and garage


On the Trail of the Wild Pawpaw, Part 2: Pickin’ Up Pawpaws

eight smaller pawpaw fruits in a white hat on wooden table

Hatful of holler. The first score.

First: a warning. One should not purchase tickets on the pawpaw express without knowing what she or he is getting into. When you opt to “ride the lightning”, you’re hopping on the front seat of an emotional and physical roller-coaster that won’t be slowing down until it’s thrown–nay, broken–all who boarded with anything less than total commitment.

Be prepared to give it all up. Relationship? Over. Career? Gone. That itchy skin? It’s not going away. Don’t bother paying the rent–you’ll be sleeping in your car most nights, anyway. Friends, family, loved-ones? Kiss them all goodbye–they’ll not be seeing you any time soon. When, or if, you reconnect, the vacant look in your eyes will tell them you’re never really coming back.

pawpaw fruit hanging in tree, Pittsburgh, PA

All that glitters. Nearly-ripe fruit sing their siren song, Squirrel Hill.

Andrew Moore is one hard dude to get an interview with…at least, this time of year. You can’t fault him, though–the author’s late summer schedule is solidly packed. Readings and signings at bookstores in Charleston and Brooklyn; judging the Best Pawpaw Contest and presenting at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival; fruit sampling with customers at the Erie Whole Foods; a talk at the nature club in Sewickley…and that’s just a couple weeks worth.

All that, and Moore still made time for Pittsburgh Orbit, right at the mid-September peak of pawpaw season. We knew we may never have this chance again, so we hit him with the big guns right away: Have you ever been bonked in the head by a falling pawpaw? (It could happen!)

As luck would have it, in the last six years of researching, writing, and extensively traveling the pawpaw belt–Ohio to Louisiana, Virginia to Kansas–a fruit-to-cranium collision has never occurred. Moore took this in stride, as did questions about his wife’s tolerance for that demon pawpaw and the amount of refrigerator space devoted to gestating seeds. [Answers: very much, he loves her a lot; and about the size and volume of a shoe box, respectively.]

Author Andrew Moore holding three huge pawpaw fruits in a pawpaw orchard

Andrew Moore with the enormous pawpaws of Deep Run Orchard, Maryland [photo courtesy of Moore]

The Orbit consumed Moore’s 2015 book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit (Chelsea Green Publishing) with a gastro-bibliological gusto that invoked what we can only call Pawpaw Fever. It is the definitive work on the subject and as such, Moore has created an elegantly-constructed and fascinating journey through a (literal) landscape both seemingly prosaic (pawpaws grow wild over most of the eastern half of the U.S.–they’re not rare) and at the same time otherworldly (an ancient fruit, re-arriving out of nowhere, with a narrative gift-wrapped for locavores and foodies alike).

Pawpaw contains a couple broad theses that ring long and loud after the last page is turned: the pawpaw as neglected super food that rightfully deserves to be back in markets, lunch bags, and restaurant menus, and the mystery of how this once-ubiquitous early autumn staple that colors so much American history managed to disappear almost entirely from the nation’s collective consciousness. It’s a great read and, needless to say, the book is Orbit-recommended.

pawpaw tree with sign for free use

The giving pawpaw tree of Squirrel Hill

When last we left our blogger, he was deep in the heart of the Schenley Park pawpaw patch, considering an uncertain fruiture (that’s a future in fruit). The pawpaws dangled tantalizingly in all directions, but like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, there was nary an “Indiana banana”–not to mention pawpaw, paw paw, paw-paw, or papaw*–to eat.

Why? Well, one of the pawpaw’s challenges is that it may only be gathered (either shaken from the tree or collected from the forest floor) when ripe. Unlike, say, a tomato or a banana, the hard pawpaw prematurely selected from the tree will never ripen. That’s no big deal out in the wild, but in the very limited supply and unmet demand within metro Pittsburgh, it’s a real crime to prematurely pick the fruit or overzealously shake the tree.

The hunt was on. We got to the, uh, low-hanging fruit (sorry) first–Schenley Park’s pawpaw patch and the magical pawpaw trees of Squirrel Hill. Moore praises the latter: “God bless [the homeowner/planter] for introducing so many of us to our first pawpaw.” This blogger is no expert, but he’s been around the pawpaw patch enough to realize that while a great entry point, these are chump change, amateur hour, gateway drugs. Both sets of trees are well-known and well-traveled destinations at this point, and as such they’ve been over-shaken, abused, ravaged, and the fruit is rarely given the chance to ripen sufficiently.

A large pawpaw cut in half with spoons and a knife

Giant pawpaw, halved.

So…blah blah blah, but what do they actually taste like? Well, I’ll tell you: they’re freakin’ delicious! The blanket description of “tropical” is safe, and banana is clearly the closest common fruit flavor profile. Some of the fruit we found was darker in color (more orange than yellow inside) and absolutely tasted and felt like caramel custard.

One other detail we never saw mentioned is that the pawpaw is really fun to eat. You slice it in half, eat it with a spoon, sorting tasty pulp from the large seeds in your mouth. They’re really unique–like a small dessert right there in every fruit.

So, our early goal of uncovering free public pawpaws right in the city gets mixed marks. We did indeed taste the fruit of several different trees, but weren’t able to uncover any real surprises. The chase is still on, though. As Moore tells it, the trees give themselves up in October, flashing a bright yellow where others go all dropping leaves and fall colors. The dedicated hunter marks her prey and bides his time for the oncoming season. Until then, The Orbit will be out there, cruising the trails…watching.

potted pawpaw tree, Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA

Future fruit. Potted pawpaw at Frick Environmental Center, likely destined for their “From Slavery to Freedom” garden project.


The bad news: According to Moore, there just aren’t that many publicly-available patches in city limits to get your paws on pawpaws…right now. It’s not a case of us not looking close enough–they just aren’t there. Between the amount of city build-up we’ve had, 150 years of heavy industry, and that damned knotweed, whatever wild pawpaw may have hugged the rivers pre-industrialization likely didn’t survive the steel industry, et al. What is here now was almost surely planted very consciously.

The good news: There is no lack of American pawpaw, even very close to Pittsburgh. As Moore says, “This is not an endangered species…you see it everywhere, especially starting right around the Mason-Dixon line** (and south)”. The Orbit finally got its first big score from a set of trees in the North Hills and realized very quickly how fast you can fill a big bag and why one probably shouldn’t eat eight pawpaws in twelve hours.

Further, Moore paints a portrait of an exciting future for Pittsburgh pawpaw. The fruit is either “having its moment” or “coming back”, depending on how you look at it. [Moore’s book is clearly a not-insignificant factor in this.] Pawpaw is on the cultural radar now like it hasn’t been for several generations and the number of city projects in parks, schools, and community gardens–not to mention all the private growers adding a couple trees to their yards–is huge. According to Moore, in five or ten years there will be more city pawpaw trees than you can shake a stick at…or, you know, just shake the fruit out of.

Man seated at table with a large pile of pawpaws.

Driven to madness. The author, with pawpaws.

Pittsburgh Orbit has accepted Moore’s spelling pawpaw (one word), but paw paw (two) seems to appear even more often “in the wild”.
** Basically, the Pennsylvania-Maryland/West Virginia border.