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.
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.]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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.