Have you ever heard of the pawpaw? It's a very sweet fruit, with a custardy texture, making it pretty decadent. It's also been called the "poor man's banana" and the "forgotten fruit" or the "trendiest fruit you've never heard of" (because they don't travel very well). But now Dean & Deluca is selling them for at least this week.
Yesterday, Dean & Deluca produce manager Chris Nilan told us, "I have been searching for a source in the NYC area for the past several years and this is the first time we’ve been successful." He also gave us some backstory: "The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to the United States, and was much loved by Native Americans and early European settlers. Lewis and Clark are said to have subsisted on them when other rations were scarce. They are exceptional fresh, with a tropical banana/mango/vanilla flavor and a rich, custardy flesh."
The pawpaws are selling for $8/pound at Dean & Deluca. After some testing at Gothamist, we can report that the mouthfeel is like an avocado with a softer texture than a very ripe nectarine. There is no citrusy tang, like a mango has, hence the banana comparison.
The pawpaw is the only temperate fruit from the Annonaceae family, which includes the tropical cherimoya and custard apple, and it grows wild in the Midwest and along the East coast. There's even a pawpaw festival in Ohio, which proudly claims the pawpaw as its state fruit ("According to fossil records, the papaw’s forebears were established in North America millions of years before the arrival of humans").
However, the pawpaw is highly perishable. Ecologist and farmer Steve Gabriel, co-author of Farming in the Woods, told us, "The fragile nature of them and short harvest season is why they aren't more readily available. They are best tree ripened and can easily get crushed in transport."
In fact, if you buy pawpaws at Dean & Deluca, there's a sign that says you should ask for assistance! If there are bruises, don't worry—you want a ripe one, because unripe ones are slightly bitter. Gabriel has written, "A ripe Paw Paw looks a lot like it’s rotten. The fruit is really soft, the skin often dark and bruised. And it’s best to get the fruit right off the tree this way, though you can pick somewhat unripe Paw Paws and store them for 3 - 6 weeks at about 2 degrees Celsius."
The pawpaws at Dean & Deluca are $8/pound and Nilan believes there will be enough through the week. They come from David Brown's farm in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. (Brown, who is also an artist, lives completely off-the-grid in a house built of hay bails.) Nilan said that he packed them single lawyer in strawberry flats, with old t-shirts, but if he is able to buy more, he'll use bubble wrap for the next trip.
Some more pawpaw fun facts:
- It's rich in calcium, protein and Vitamin C (pdf).
- When chilled, it was a favorite dessert of George Washington.
- Thomas Jefferson had them at Monticello.
- Michelle Obama even planted a sapling at the White House garden.
- There are more than a few pawpaw beers.
- Pawpaw is great in cocktails.
- Pawpaw ice cream sounds pretty good.
- Slow Food USA named the pawpaw an "ark item," which means it's at risk of extinction.
- They are also native to NY State and actually do very well growing here (more details from Cornell, which is having a pawpaw tasting and presentation on its Ithaca campus on Wednesday).