There's a stellar festival not too far away that celebrates an unusual and relatively unknown Appalachian native food: the pawpaw.
This Friday through Sunday, Sept. 13 to 15, the Ohio Pawpaw Festival once again is pawpaw partying, for the 15th time, at Lake Snowden in Albany, Ohio, near Athens. It's an almost-four-hour drive away from Downtown Pittsburgh, but if you're into wild/unusual foods, it could be well worth it.
Founder Chris Chmiel, who grows pawpaws organically on his property, says plenty of Pittsburghers are among the 8,000 people who attend the annual fest.
Former Post-Gazette food editor Suzanne Martinson wrote about the festival in 2003 and about pawpaws, which are a bit like American mangoes; they ripen to a soft, custardy flesh with a sweet tropical taste.
I used to look for them this time of year in the woods around Southwestern Ohio where I grew up, and they can be found in Western Pennsylvania, as well. You can find trees here and there right in the city.
But the easiest place to find them would be this festival, where attendees can taste different varieties and buy them from the North American Pawpaw Growers Association (there are cultivated pawpaws, too).
The long list of festival foods include many featuring the fruit: pawpaw curry puffs, chicken sate with pawpaw peanut sauce, vegetable pawpaw noodles, pawpaw pulled pork, chocolate-peanut-covered pawpaws, pawpaw splits, pawpaw chili, pawpaw cookies and other desserts, and pawpaw beverages.
Mr. Chmiel says the festival requires food vendors to offer pawpaw dishes, as there's nothing worse than going to a festival celebrating a food and not being able to taste the food. "We really try to go out of our way to create an authentic experience."
Most interesting to me as the PG's craft beer guy is the fest's beer garden, in which regional brewers will pour a half-dozen pawpaw brews:
• Pawpaw Pale Ale from Zanesville, Ohio's Weasel Boy Brewing, described as an "English-style pale ale as a base with a generous amount of Ohio-harvested pawpaw added for a great fruity aroma and a banana/mango-like flavor. (4% alcohol by volume)."
• Pawpaw Wheat from Athens' Jackie O's Pub & Brewery -- "Strong pawpaw character in a straw-colored American wheat beer with a crisp dry finish. (9% ABV)." (This place sells the beer outside the festival, as well.)
• Pawpaw Wheat from Cleveland's Buckeye Brewing Co. -- "Wheat-based ale with a fresh, delicate pawpaw aroma. Finishes fairly dry, very easy to drink. (6% ABV)."
• Pawpaw Saison from Akron's Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. -- "This pawpaw-infused saison has all of the peppery, bubblegum spiciness that you'd expect from a saison. Then when the pawpaw's subtle pearlike, apricoty, mango-ish flavors and aromas blend with it, you have a flavorful, medium-bodied beer that is sure to please. (8.5% ABV)."
• Putnam's Pawpaw Ale from Marietta [Ohio] Brewing Co. -- "Pale malt and red wheat lay the foundation for this complex and refreshing ale brewed with local pawpaws and sweet oranges. (6.0% ABV)."
• Cookie Duster from Westlake, Ohio's Black Box Brewing Co. -- "This Belgian oatmeal rye features pawpaw pulp and Tellicherry peppercorns. It has a tangy, wild-wood flavor peculiarly its own. It's sweet, yet rather cloying to the taste, and a wee bit puckery, while continuing to be a true gentleman's beer. (6.5% ABV)."
There'll be kegs of non-alcoholic pawpaw soda, as well.
There's a Pawpaw Cookoff and an Pawpaw Eating Contest and a Best Pawpaw Competition. Also in the Pawpaw Tent will be talks and presentations. And all kinds of other fun, including children's activities, sustainability workshops, fitness/wellness events, a community marketplace, artists and craftspeople, live music, a bike ride, stand-up paddleboard excursions and, new this year, a Pawpaw Gauntlet Obstacle Course and a golf tournament.
Says Mr. Chmiel, "You're going to get people who are pawpaw geeks and lots of people who don't know anything about pawpaws."
No dogs are allowed on the fest grounds, but nextdoor, there's Paws at the Pawpaw, where dogs can stay for $5 a day or $10 all weekend and have their own demonstrations and competitions (dog-sitting is available for an extra charge).
Festival hours are 4 p.m. to midnight Fri., 10 a.m. to midnight Sat. and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sun. Admission is $10 for a one-day pass or $20 for the entire weekend; children 12 and younger get in free. For more information and complete schedules, visit ohiopawpawfest.com call 1-740-698-6060 or email email@example.com.
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.