Long time no write. Things have been hectic and I have not been feeling well. After a freakish and unseasonably cool start to the summer, three weeks ago (around the time I got bit by a tick that had Lyme) August seemed to remember that it is supposed to be the hellish part of the summer. We’ve had unbelievably hot and humid weather interposed with the freakishly cool weather. Great recipe for illness even if we hadn’t all climatized to fall weather. In June.
Predictably, the seasons for foraging are all messed up. Spring, summer and fall species are all piled up on one another and I never in my life thought I would say I’m sick of chanterelles…. but I am!!
Today we are going to focus on a NOT mushroom example of foraging. I have devoted far too much of my time to talking about fungus and not nearly enough talking about other wild edibles that abound. Let us talk about the Pawpaw.
PAWPAW. Think back to third grade music class and the damn winter time square dancing: “Pickin up the pawpaws/ puttin ‘em inna basket”
Oh stop rocking back and forth. The fetal position is for wussies. We all went through it and some sick monkeys actually like that crap and go to bars to participate in it as adults. The point is that this wonderful edible has snuck its way into our collective unconscious via elementary school music class, like “Oh Sussanah” and “Comin Around the Mountain.” Most people don’t know what THOSE are about either but they can sing them word for word. Many may be right this second bashing their heads against hard surfaces trying to STOP singing it because they just read the words.
Pawpaws. Also known as the Hoosier Banana, and the Custard Banana. It is common enough in North America. There are actually several species of it. Most people have absolutely NO IDEA what the heck it is. It looks a little like a mango on the exterior, but that is pretty much where the resemblance ends. I find them to be more like a banana in most respects. They start out hard, but soften as they ripen. The most common variety in North America is the Asimina triloba, which is a cold hardy species. There are evergreen species in the southern, warmer parts of the continent.
Pawpaws are the only member of the Asimina genus NOT found in the tropics. It is distantly related to the Ylang Ylang and the Soursop. I find the pawpaw fascinating because the flowers look like dried blood and smell like rotting meat. I’m not kidding! Blowflies are one of its pollinators! Yes, I’m macabre. Don’t judge me. What do you want from someone who makes various “blood splattered” products? You want a “bloody” shower curtain, I’m your gal. Don’t be surprised that I like a plant whose flowers look like dried blood and smells like rotting meat.
There hasn’t been a lot of work on “improving” or domestication the species because pollination is difficult and sparse. The good news with that is with the current bee situation, you can still expect pawpaws; they won’t be impacted at all.
The fruit is delicious and very fragile once ripe. It doesn’t store or travel well. Collect it while you can, if you are lucky enough to find under ripe fruit, freeze it! In the middle of the winter when you are DYING for fresh fruit, you can thaw one out, give it a few days and it will ripen right up. It makes tasty “banana” bread too. When I was a kid I knew someone who would make an ass kicking custard out of it. No real recipe, just take the mashed innards, add some eggs, milk, spices (anything you use with pumpkins works) and some honey, mix and bake. It was so good. It was kind of like a healthy alternative to cheese cake.
The pawpaw tree is very distinctive. It is a slender plant that tends to grow in large clusters. The thin trunk is often very tall, with thin branches and smooth bark when young. It usually starts dropping off the trees after a good wind early in the fall. Here in the center of the Midwest (literally the center; in the middle north and south/east west) that USUALLY is the end of September. NOT THIS YEAR!! They started dropping or encouraged (shake the trees to get close to but not yet ripe fruit to fall) the last week of August.
If ripe, they can be eaten as is. The skins, much like a banana are not edible. Much like a mango, there is a seed issue. The center is full of LARGE seeds. My daughter likes to take a big bite up to the peel, seeds and all and then spit the seeds out, like watermelon. If not ripe, you have to let them get that way. Think green banana. Yuck.
To find the pawpaw, try state parks and national parks. Slopes of lowland forest, and the edges of swamps is a good place. We usually hunt a few state and national forests in Missouri and Illinois. When they are ready, you get overwhelmed fast. You can freeze them or scoop out innards into a storage container (blend until smooth) and freeze it as pulp.
The fruit is high in Vitamin C, protein and trace minerals. When I was a youngster an old man named Sonny Yarborough who owned property north of ours told me that they used it to treat scurvy. It is plausible. Not as much vitamin C as a lime I would imagine, but for the middle of the Midwest, the best choice around!
An interesting note, there is currently research into creating cancer fighting drugs from the bark and seeds. They contain some very promising alkaloids.