Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit” (Chelsea Green, 2015).
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello offers an unparalleled view of central Virginia: the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Piedmont and nearby Charlottesville, home to Jefferson’s other great architectural achievement, the University of Virginia. In between all of those sites, in the woods and along creeks and rivers, pawpaws abound.
What’s a pawpaw? Just the largest edible fruit native to the United States and possibly the best-tasting thing (like a cross between a banana and a mango) that you may never have experienced. When I first discovered the river fruit, five years ago in Ohio, and learned that it grows wild in 26 states; that it sustained Native Americans, European explorers, presidents and enslaved African Americans; that it requires no pesticides or herbicides to thrive; and that it contains powerful anticancer agents, I wondered: Why do so few people these days know about it?
On my quest to answer how pawpaws went from importance to obscurity, and whether there is a chance to reverse that trajectory, I traveled from the Ozarks to Monticello, to North Carolina, Louisiana, Illinois and more to gather pawpaw lore and knowledge. I also wanted to explore how economic, biologic and cultural forces combine to lead us to eat what we eat, and sometimes ignore the delicious food growing within reach.
I went to Monticello because Jefferson is rumored — as is frequently stated in news articles describing the fruit — to have believed that pawpaws had potential under cultivation. It’s a feather in the cap of today’s pawpaw promoters, who are growing in number: Jefferson’s involvement validates their own claims of its merit.
Lewis and Clark’s story of subsisting on pawpaws alone for three days might have been of interest to Jefferson, but it’s unlikely that it would have been his first introduction to the fruit. The country of Jefferson’s youth was filled with wild pawpaws. Later in life, records he kept show Asimina triloba (our common pawpaw) as having been planted on his estate. Jefferson also sent pawpaw seeds to associates in Europe, as the plant was considered an exceptional and unique American biological discovery.
In early September 2012, I take a tour of Monticello, a national historic landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site, hoping to find a pawpaw planting. I begin my search at the re-created kitchen garden, which is full of okra, its hibiscus flowers in full bloom, and beans, squash and tomatoes, neatly arranged in rows on a high terrace behind Jefferson’s home. Next, I search his “Fruitery,” which includes a South Orchard of 400 fruit trees, two vineyards and “berry squares” of currants, gooseberries and raspberries. I check Mulberry Row, the site of slave quarters just 300 feet from Jefferson’s home, named for the fruit-bearing tree that provided both shade and berries, and I search among his peach and apple plantings, and along submural beds of fig trees. But nowhere is there a trace of pawpaws.
During a group tour of the home I ask our guide if he knows anything about Jefferson’s work with pawpaws, and whether there are any planted here. He checks with another expert and confers, but concludes rather definitively that, no, there weren’t any pawpaws here, and that Jefferson didn’t cultivate pawpaws in his day.
At the conclusion of the tour, we exit the home and enter the formal gardens. Walking along the west lawn, I admire the small fishpond, and the hedges and trees planted generations ago. And then, just beyond the more formal plantings, I spot it: a pawpaw tree, one of the largest I have ever seen. Even from a distance I can identify the leaves. For a brief moment I think I might have been duped by the similar-looking cucumber magnolia, but the tree is bearing its unmistakable fruit. A few pieces lie in the grass, while others still cling to branches. The tree has grown in the classic pyramidal pawpaw shape, with one lower branch large enough to climb on—a feat I have rarely encountered anywhere. Although it hasn’t produced fruit in abundance, the tree is so large that there’s enough for me to gather quite a few. The pawpaws are on average 4 or 5 inches long, larger than most wild fruit. I eat one on the spot: Not excessively seedy, it’s sweet but does leave a bitter aftertaste. Nothing too exceptional, but it’s here at Monticello, and that seems significant enough.
I can wish, but I don’t imagine that this tree, large as it is, was planted by Thomas Jefferson. Pawpaw patches, however, as a single organism, can be incredibly long-lived. Considering this, the large pawpaw tree in front of me could be a clonal offspring, a seedling even, sprouted from dropped fruit of a tree that Thomas Jefferson planted in the early 1800s.
Either way, it’s a discovery. I show it to a Monticello Gardens tour leader. “Far out,” he says. “You found that here?” More than 27 million people have visited Monticello; on this day, hundreds if not thousands toured the site. Every walking tour of the home ends here, near this tree, and yet it remains unknown. Even here, the pawpaw grows in anonymity.
At the age of 21, George Washington was the first English colonist to venture over the Appalachian Mountains on official order. His military career constantly sent him into the wilderness, where he confronted not only gunfire and cannon blast, but also difficult terrain and inclement weather. Still, it would be misleading to call the woods entirely hostile, as they were abundant with wild fruit, greens and game. If Washington wasn’t already acquainted with pawpaws as a boy in Virginia, he certainly would have discovered the fruit on campaigns in the mountains of that state, as well as in Pennsylvania. Everywhere he went was — and remains — pawpaw country. Like Lewis and Clark, the many settlers to follow and the native peoples before him, Washington and his armies would have found this rich fruit a welcome blessing when provisions were low. And in the bottoms of the Potomac River, which his plantation overlooked, among the sycamores and hickories, were also pawpaws.
Today pawpaws are absent from the formal gardens, but they abound in the wild places surrounding Mount Vernon. They’re behind the plantation’s tobacco barn, where a small stream drains into the Potomac. Along with the pink blooms of swamp rose mallow (and lingering bits of litter) is a scattering of pawpaw trees. Another patch of wild pawpaws grows behind the replica of a small slave cabin. This section of Mount Vernon, called Dogue Run Farm, was home to the hundreds of slaves Washington owned in his lifetime. Pawpaws would have been gathered from these woods and eaten by the nation’s first president and his slaves alike.
Near Washington’s tomb, just above one of the walking paths, a patch of several large pawpaw trees grows among dark, towering evergreens. Thousands of visitors walk this path every year, with ripe pawpaws growing close enough to fall on someone’s head. When I examine the patch I am rewarded with a single, large piece of fruit.
One of the best and most-repeated pawpaw myths says that chilled pawpaw was one of Washington’s favorite desserts. I have so far been unable to find any evidence to substantiate that claim, but perhaps it’s fitting that the nation’s first president, about whom there are so many legends — the chopping of the cherry tree; the wooden teeth that weren’t — ought also to have some connection with America’s largest, most impressive native fruit.
But let’s say the story is true. Did he gather pawpaws while out on a fox hunt, or a walk around his estate? How would Washington’s pawpaw have been presented to him? Would his enslaved chef, Hercules, have kept pieces of whole fruit in the ice cellar? And was it wild, or fruit picked from his garden? Perhaps Washington enjoyed slicing the fruit, twisting it open and eating it with a spoon. He might have sucked on pawpaw seeds for every bit of the sweet pulp. Perhaps Hercules scooped it for him, presented it as a pudding in a bowl, seated in ice. Yes, maybe Washington did eat pawpaw by the chilled bowlful each September.
The Charlottesville Farmers Market is a Saturday-morning happening. A massive parking lot that on another day would be a waste of downtown real estate is filled with booths, their vendors selling fruits and vegetables, prepared foods, tacos and more.
Daniel Perry, who owns and operates Jam According to Daniel, is experienced with all sorts of ripe fruit, from fig, peach and strawberry, to apple, blueberry and raspberry. His jams are displayed in Mason jars at the market, all wrapped in black-and-white labels. One pound of local fruit in every jar, no pectin added.
A friend of Perry’s, experimenting at home, made a pawpaw jam using Perry’s technique. It was a vibrant yellow “fabulous, passion-fruity, pineappley, sort of vanilla-y . . . tropical ensemble,” he said. Intrigued, Perry then went to a local wild patch and gathered between 20 and 30 pounds of fruit. After several hours, he processed just a few pounds. So he called it a day, and planned to resume the task the following morning. That’s when he encountered the notorious scent of ripening pawpaws. “It smells like if a perfume factory were an animal, and that animal was roadkill,” Perry says. “It’s just this sweet, sickly sort of smell.”
Pawpaws typically last three to five days at room temperature before, as Daniel observed, they’re unusable and far too overripe. His description may be sensational — and to some it’s a pleasant aroma — but as ripening turns to fermentation, the scent can certainly be overwhelming. Of the ones Daniel gathered in the wild, many had been picked up from the ground – as the traditional song “The Paw Paw Patch” instructs — and were probably bruised and well on their way to being too far gone before he’d even brought them home. His olfactory senses were doomed from the beginning.
That perishability, the pawpaw’s short shelf life, is often cited as the reason pawpaws haven’t been brought under commercial cultivation. There are ways to address that challenge, and many pawpaw growers are succeeding. Nonetheless, it’s true — and if George Washington really did enjoy a chilled pawpaw, we know that the lesson had already been learned in the 18th century — do not wait to get your pawpaw on ice.
The distance between historic Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown is 13 miles via the Colonial Parkway, a scenic roadway and part of the National Park Service. At least 10 of those miles are lined with a dense and vibrant understory of pawpaws, with trees standing shoulder to shoulder the entire way. Of course I have to stop and go in to find fruit. As I load my hatchback with the first batch of picked-up pawpaws, gathered from the woods there, I am visibly shaking with excitement. It is the largest expanse of fruit-bearing pawpaws I’ve ever walked through. In the residential neighborhoods adjacent to the parkway, pawpaws grow like weeds, popping up in hedges and along unkempt property edges.
We drive farther, toward Yorktown, but I have to pull over a second time for an even larger patch. I fill a small bag and follow a deer trail back to the road. Exiting the woods, I pass a giant Southern magnolia — its glossy leaves seeming all the more tropical in this forest of fragrant fruit — only to find a park ranger parked behind my car. “Just picking up pawpaws!” I call out, hoping I’m not breaking any ordinances. I hold up the bag as proof. Thankfully he gives me a wave and lowers himself back into the car, then drives on. I must look like a feverish madman, shaggy-haired, way too wide-eyed and excited, holding a bag of mushy green orbs. But he’s a ranger here; maybe he’s seen this before. Pickin’ up pawpaws.
Later in the evening, at a motel in Williamsburg, I pull one of several dozen pawpaws from the room’s jam-packed mini fridge. The fruit tastes wild, for sure, but not bitter, the texture slightly grainy; fruity and sweet. And chilled, as Washington would have had it.