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Pawpaws and the Ark of Taste

Wednesday, November 3, 2004; Page F07

What's shaped like an overweight banana, tastes kind of like a mango and is in danger of becoming extinct?

The pawpaw, the largest edible fruit native to North America (in the eastern United States, pawpaws can weigh up to 16 ounces and grow up to six inches in length). Eaten by pioneers and Native Americans, the fruit, which is related to the custard apple, has a smooth, custardy texture.

Pawpaws thrive in this region. But their season in early fall is brief, their delicate nature makes shipping a challenge and few people grow them. They're usually seen only at farmers markets and in restaurants.

About a year ago, Marsha Weiner, a local freelance writer and food enthusiast, decided to champion the fruit. She discovered she wasn't alone. Her campaign led her to experts at: an orchard run by Jim Davis and Neal Peterson in Westminster, Md.; a University of Maryland program on the Wye River; an extensive pawpaw project at the University of Kansas; and a University of Arizona initiative that develops and supports strategies for keeping America's food traditions alive.

Weiner is also the Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania regional governor of Slow Food USA. Her goal was to get the pawpaw aboard the Slow Food organization's Ark of Taste. And in September she did.

Slow Food, which was founded in Italy in 1986, is a nonprofit educational organization that now boasts 65,000 members in 45 countries. Its mission is to resist the homogenization of food around the world by saving regional foods and small producers from extinction. There are 75 chapters (called convivia) in the United States. An offshoot of Slow Food, the Ark of Taste, identifies gastronomically desirable regional foods that are disappearing in today's world. Hence the idea of an Ark. Just like Noah's.

Getting foods aboard the Ark is a process that involves formally nominating the food, making a case for protecting it, identifying producers and harvesters, and sending samples to the nominating committee to taste. The Slow Food pawpaw tasting in mid-September in Madison, Wis., was a great success. "People flipped out," says Weiner. "There was no dissension."

Once a food has been accepted for the Ark, it's the job of designated members of Slow Food to devise a way to increase an awareness of the product, and to help create markets for it. There are currently 250 American food products on the Ark. (See www.slowfoodusa.org/ark/ index.html).

Will it be worth the work? You bet. "It's a very nutritious fruit -- full of niacin and potassium," says Weiner.

It's easy to serve, too: "If you cut it in half horizontally, the fruit serves two, becomes its own saucer and you can spoon the custard," she says.

"And kids love it."

For more information about the Slow Food organization as well as the Ark of Taste, go to www.slowfood.usa.org. -- Judith Weinraub

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