Forgotten fruit: Fest celebrates the pawpaw




The pungent, fruity aroma hits you even before you reach Edward and Alma Fincke’s front steps in Emsworth. It’s an exotic, tropical smell you can’t quite put your finger on, especially on a brick street in a sleepy Pittsburgh suburb. Ripe bananas or grapes, perhaps, or maybe a mango?

It’s pawpaws, the oblong berries of a fruit tree that grows wild in more than two dozen states, including Pennsylvania. Despite being a staple for Native Americans and others into the early part of the 20th century, most people have never heard of a pawpaw.

Tree Pittsburgh aims to right that culinary wrong. As part of Saturday’s annual Arbor Aid at Carrie Furnace in Swissvale, the nonprofit is hosting the city’s first Pawpaw Fest. Refreshments will include a pawpaw  American wheat ale from Deutschtown’s Allegheny City Brewing and Leona’s pawpaw ice cream sandwiched between rounds of coconut shortbread. There will also be speakers, vendors, kids activities and the opportunity to buy pawpaw trees from Winterjack Farm.

One of Tree Pittsburgh’s missions is to promote native trees, so a fest celebrating one that grows in moist, shady places in the eastern half of the U.S. was a natural. Ohio’s famed three-day pawpaw festival in Albany has been drawing crowds since 2000, and there’s also a festival in York, Pa.

“We thought it would be a fun event to get people scratching their heads,” says community education coordinator Joe Stavish. 

Also known as the American custard apple or the “poor man’s banana,” the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is the largest native fruit in North America. Its pulp has a creamy, avocado-like texture that’s easily scooped with a spoon and tastes like a mashup of banana and mango.

This understory tree grows best along rivers, creeks and streams. Depending on the variety and individual tree (there are more than 40 cultivars), the fruit can measure anywhere from just a few inches to half a foot. The Finckes’ hillside patch produces fruit that’s about the size of baby mango. 

The couple’s 12 trees yield so much fruit each fall that they often give it away by the bagful, “and we also share them with the rabbits and groundhogs,” Mr. Fincke says, gesturing toward dozens on the ground.

Even though he grew up among fruit trees in Observatory Hill, Mr. Fincke never knew about pawpaws until he traveled on business to Indiana and West Virginia. Before long, he was bringing bags home. His youngest son decided to plant a half-dozen seedlings, and in just a few years, the self-propagating trees doubled in number.

“They’re sweet, and food, and inherent to the climate we live in,” he says.

One reason the pawpaw has fallen off our collective radar is that so many forests have been cleared for farming, says Mr. Stavish.  Another is that in the wild, it grows in the shadow of much larger trees.

“It has never needed to stand out,” North Side resident Andrew Moore notes in his 2015 book “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit” (Chelsea Green Publishing, $19.15).

Generations ago, pawpaws were celebrated in folk songs and became the namesake of numerous towns and villages, he said. “But as Americans stopped going to the woods for food, they stopped knowing the pawpaw.”

It doesn’t help that the fruit is quite delicate and has a shelf life of just three to five days. Pawpaws won’t ripen off the tree (they turn black) and have no taste if they’re picked green. You have to pluck them at exactly the right moment when their purplish yellow-orange flesh yields slightly and smells super fruity. In Pittsburgh, the three-week harvest usually runs from late September into October. 

“You need to find the balance between too hard and too soft,” says Alma Fincke.

Eating a pawpaw also can be an exercise in frustration. Each berry is filled with two rows of almond-sized seeds, and they don’t easily pull away from the pulp. You have to really work at it.

“There’s nothing easy about a pawpaw,” says Mrs. Fincke,   

Except growing one. The tree has no native pest issues and doesn’t get much taller than 15 feet in the shade. It can easily be grown without pesticides or herbicides and thrives in colder climates (USDA zones 5-8). An added bonus: Pawpaws attract zebra swallowtail butterflies. It’s the only plant on which its larvae will feed.

“Anyone can grow it,” says Mr. Stavish. “You don’t need to spray, and deer don’t like it either.” 

The Finckes typically enjoy their pawpaws fresh off the tree with a spoon (you can’t eat the skin), but the fruit also is a fine substitute for banana in breads, puddings, ice cream and custards. The pulp also can be made into compote, jam, wine and beer.

Since the pawpaw has never been cultivated domestically — it’s too perishable and the season’s too short  —  you only rarely see it at farmers markets or on the produce aisle. You’ll find them in limited quantities at East End Co-op in East Liberty, where the fruit from Winterjack Farm costs $10.99 a pound and a seedling runs $23.99. It  also occasionally will pop up on local menus; Cure in Lawrenceville has pawpaw cream pie this week and so does Downtown’s Union Standard, along with “pawpaucamole” as a dip with roasted shishito peppers. Superior Motors in Braddock is planning both savory and dessert dishes.

And if you can’t make it to the fest or co-op? Your best bet may be to head to the woods for some foraging (hint: there’s a small grove in Schenley Park) or find a nursery that sells saplings. Just remember you’ll need two trees to get started so they can cross pollinate.

Arbor Aid & Pawpaw Fest runs from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, rain or shine. Tickets are $50 (includes three beers), $40 general admission, $10 children ages 4-18 and free ages 3 and under. Available at the door or www.treepittsburgh.org.

Gretchen McKay: gmkay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.





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