A few months back, we got an email that set us off on an adventure. It came from Sara Bir, author of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. Sara is obsessed with pawpaws, the largest fruit native to North America. “Pawpaws are tricky in the kitchen,” Sara wrote. “You can't buy them in stores. Occasionally they cause people to vomit. But pawpaws are truly beguiling, reminiscent of tropical fruit like mangoes and bananas.” With the help of her connections in the pawpaw dark web, Sara had identified one of the few pawpaw patches in the New York area. Can Dan and Sara find a pawpaw in the wild? And why does the pawpaw — also known as the poor man’s banana and hillbilly mango — inspire such a cultish following?
For more pictures of Dan’s pawpaw quest, and to check out Chef Ron’s pawpaw crème brûlée, check out Dan’s Instagram!
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Marimba Feels Good" by Stephen Sullivan
- "Back At It" by Bira
- "Galilei Counterpoint" by Paul Fonfara
- "Mars Casino" by Leisure Birds
- "Loud" by Bira
- "My Little Friend" by Ken Brahmstedt
- "Butler County Hayride" by Stephen Sullivan
Photo courtesy of Dan Pashman.
Dan Pashman: All right, Sara. We are at the entrance to a park.
Sara Bir: Yes.
Dan Pashman: At an undisclosed location, somewhere in the New York metro area.
Sara Bir: Yes.
Dan Pashman: I would like to ask you to please read the email that you sent me that has brought us here today.
Sara Bir: Sure! Do you think Sporkful listeners are pumped for pawpaw season? Maybe a few, but a lot of the people have no idea what pawpaws are. Pawpaw lovers are just about the biggest nerds out there and I'm one of them. So much so that I wrote an entire cookbook about pawpaws, The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. It explores the ins and outs of gathering and preparing North America's largest native fruit, which is not as straightforward as it seems. Pawpaws are tricky in the kitchen. You can't buy them in stores. Occasionally, they cause people to vomit. But besides the rare instances of vomiting, pawpaws are truly beguiling. They're aromatic, custardy, and reminiscent of tropical fruit like, mangoes and bananas. I make a mean pawpaw lassi. Pawpaws grow all over the place in Ohio, where I live. To my knowledge, there's only one pawpaw patch in the New York City area.
Sara Bir: It's a quasi secret, but through careful Google searches and tips from the grapevine, I sussed out where it is. What if I came to New York and took you there to go pawpaw hunting? I wouldn't want the actual location revealed on the show in order to keep yahoos from raiding it. Also, mysteries are more fun.
Dan Pashman: So, Sara? You're in from Ohio. Here we are.
Sara Bir: Here we are. I think there's only one thing left to do.
Dan Pashman: What's that?
Sara Bir: Look for pawpaws.
Dan Pashman: Let's go.
Sara Bir: Okay. Oh, there's — there are two more things left to do.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Sara Bir: Apply insect repellent.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Sara Bir: And then look for pawpaws.
Dan Pashman: OK. All right. Let's do it.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Today, we’re searching for pawpaws, guided by Sara Bir, who you just heard. She’s an author, chef, and recipe developer and she loves pawpaws so much that she offered to make the nine-hour drive from her home in Ohio to New York to introduce me to them.
Dan Pashman: So what is this mysterious fruit? Why have I, and I suspect many of you, never heard of it? And what about it inspires an almost cultish following?
Dan Pashman: As Sara said in her email, pawpaws are the largest fruit native to North America. They’ve been around for as long as we have records from this part of the world. The Shawnee tribe has a month named after the pawpaw. Thomas Jefferson had them grown at Monticello; Lewis and Clark ate them on their famous expedition. And formerly enslaved people foraged and ate pawpaws on their way to freedom.
Dan Pashman: When European colonists first encountered these fruits, they may have thought they were papayas. In fact, in some parts of the world, pawpaw is another name for papaya but the North American pawpaw we’re talking about today is a completely different fruit, in a different family from the papaya.
Dan Pashman: Ohio, West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia are the heart of pawpaw country. But they grow as far west as Nebraska, up into Canada, down to Florida, and east to New York, where Sara and I are today.
Dan Pashman: It’s almost impossible to find pawpaws at a grocery store, for reasons we’ll get to later. That means that to get your paws on some pawpaws, you need to forage for them. As we said, I can’t tell you where Sara and I are looking. That’s a big no-no among foragers. But I will say that it took me nearly three hours to get from my house on Long Island to this spot. Which really doesn’t tell you anything because with traffic, that could be 200 miles or 20. The spot is called a park, but it’s really just woods that run along a busy road.
Dan Pashman: You don't just like end up where we are right now by accident.
Sara Bir: Exactly. Exactly. This is the most fun kind of place to go foraging because it's full of surprises and it's completely unexceptional from where we're standing.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. There is no path. You should have brought a machete. That would have been really fun.
Dan Pashman: Sara has never been here before. But I’m hoping she's got enough sleuthing skills, and enough contacts in the pawpaw dark web to figure out where this pawpaw patch should be.
Dan Pashman: What are the what are the chances that we're going to search and search and search and never find it? Is that possible?
Sara Bir: I think it's possible. I think it's possible. I believe there are pawpaw trees here. But maybe I'm a nincompoop and not able to see them. And also, if we find the trees, there may be no pawpaws on them. Right? That's more likely.
Dan Pashman: Oh, so there are two hurdles we got to get over.
Sara Bir: Two hurdles.
Dan Pashman: First, we got to find the trees and then we got to hope they have some fruit on them or that they ever had some fruit on them.
Sara Bir: Yes. Yes. Everyone listening, place your wagers now.
Sara Bir: What is the probability of success here? This is going to be successful no matter what, because any time to me spent out in the woods is like totally, totally worth it.
Dan Pashman: We make our way through this untamed thicket of trees, fallen branches, and brambles. We pass an old exercise bike that someone trashed, which is deep enough into the woods that it’s not like a person just chucked it in here. They carried it in quite a ways. I suspect it’s a marker for buried treasure or a body. We leave it undisturbed. Sara starts giving me some tips on what we’re looking for.
Sara Bir: Pawpaws are understory trees. So that means in a hardwood forest like this, the understory trees are going to be the shorter ones growing under what I suppose would be the canopy. Right?
Dan Pashman: Right.
Sara Bir: Most pawpaw trees get to be like maybe 20 to 30 feet tall. But 10 feet tall is also not an uncommon height. They don't get super duper big. So if I see — if we see a patch of greenery that's notably not as tall as everything else out here? That is a sign.
Dan Pashman: When was the first time you heard about pawpaws?
Sara Bir: When I was in my 20s, I had a boyfriend from West Virginia. He told me about them and it sounded like something that somebody made up. It didn't sound like it could exist. It just stuck in my head that that existed.
Dan Pashman: Several years passed and Sara moved all around the country. Eventually, she settled back in Ohio, where she’s from. She was working as a chef and recipe developer, but she was also searching for a new direction, some kind of spark.
Sara Bir: And when we moved to Ohio, I was out in the woods around this time of year and I saw this thing splayed open in the middle of the trail, just like smashed open. And it had these bright yellow guts and these glistening black seeds. It looked like a spaceship and dropped it there. Looked like nothing I had ever seen in all of my years. So I picked it up and I smelled it. I thought, I bet this thing's a pawpaw. So when I revisited the spot, and after having verified that it was, indeed, a pawpaw. I went back. I found another one that was not smashed open with ants on it. And I just stood there and ate it. I was like, what the heck? It was like nothing I'd ever tasted before. And so you can spend your whole life in a place where pawpaws grow and you’re just not aware of them at all, which is kind of fun because once you are, it’s like this whole other portal opens up and you realize there are so many discoveries to be made in our everyday world.
Dan Pashman: I gather there's a whole community of pawpaw nerds, as you put it in your letter. Tell me about that community. Who are the people? What are these people like?
Sara Bir: Slightly esoteric. Into plants. People who love eating pawpaws tend to have more — I don't want to say adventurous. They can just tolerate a wider range of flavors and they're drawn to that.
Dan Pashman: I’m lucky that a bonafide paw paw nerd was willing to drive to New York to hang out with me. But not everyone has that opportunity. For most folks, you have to go to the pawpaw community. And the best way to do that is to head to the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival.
Dan Pashman: A few days before Sara and I met on the side of the road, more than 7,000 people descended on Albany, Ohio for the festival. Sara was there, giving a demonstration about how to de-seed, puree, and freeze pawpaw pulp. There was a best pawpaw competition, judged by Tiktok famous forager Alexis Nikole Nelson and other experts. Sara described the attendees as people who like to hula hoop and dance to jam bands. We sent reporter Liz Reid to the festival, to chat up the pawpaw faithful.
Liz Reid: What brought you here today?
Blake Estep: Just trying to find some pawpaw fruit and eat some pawpaw food, drink some pawpaw drinks.
Allison Brady: We are foragers. We have a pretty hilly acreage and forested acreage that has pawpaws on it. So we get ideas about how to improve production on our own property.
Mark Hildebrand: I always just found it fascinating that you can take a wild pawpaw and graft a different cultivar on it and change the variety. But also...
Dan Pashman: The festival also attracted some newbies.
Emily Fleitz: I’ve had pawpaws once in my life.
John Estep: I grew up in West Virginia and, you know, you sang the song, you know, "Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch” and all that kinda stuff. But I have yet to eat one yet but the beer is good.
Dan Pashman: This festival takes place every September, which is prime time for pawpaw foraging, although the season extends into October in some areas. Pawpaws may be hard to find in the woods of New York, but at the festival, they’re everywhere. And most people can’t get enough of their distinctive taste and texture.
Kate Fleitz: You cut it open and the one I ate was really soft so I kind of ate it with a spoon and it had the consistency of a custard. And it was like a mild banana-mango taste. It was delicious.
Mark Hildebrand: They’re very good. They’re rich. They’re almost too rich. They’re sometimes almost cloyingly sweet.
M Onion: Um, well, it’s a little slimy. But it’s somewhere between a banana and mango. There’s a little pineapple.
Griffin Kennedy: This is genuine reaction. All right. here you go. Let me try some.
Kristin Harnish: Mm. It's like — it's very a combination between a banana and a mango.
Griffin Kennedy: Yeah. I would agree. Yeah. That’s good though. That's really good. I like that.
Dan Pashman: That taste has inspired many nicknames for the pawpaw: Prairie banana. Indiana banana, Poor man's banana, American custard apple, Quaker delight, and hillbilly mango.
Dan Pashman: When Sara told me that pawpaws are like nothing she ever tasted before? That’s because they’ve got an unusual lineage. They’re native to North America, but they’re in a family with fruits that grow in tropical climates like cherimoya and soursop. So most of the pawpaw’s relatives are native to the Caribbean, Central America, or South America, much closer to the equator. The pawpaw is like a sibling that wandered away from the group at some point and never turned back. But it still tastes tropical. Its flavors might transport you to the Caribbean, even if the closest beach is on Lake Erie. Vic Rose tried a pawpaw for the first time just a few days before the festival, when he found some growing on his property in West Virginia.
Vic Rose: It tastes very much like a tropical fruit called a sweetsop, which I was familiar with from growing up in Jamaica. Sweetsops can’t grow here, it’s too cold. I sent a text to all my Jamaican relatives to tell them that I may have identified a sweetsop substitute that will grow in the cold air.
Dan Pashman: Vic and his wife, Vikki, were so inspired that they drove up to the festival on a whim.
Vikki Rose: So now we’re standing in line to taste test because we don’t know what a pawpaw is really supposed to taste like, and we can — he can compare it to what he knows and I can learn something new.
Dan Pashman: The Ohio Pawpaw Festival is all about sharing pawpaws: eating them, swapping recipes, trading tips about how to grow them. But some information isn’t shared.
Maggie Flinn: We live in Columbus and there's a lot of sort of competition cause there's a lot of pawpaw growing in the city and parks. But you have to be very vigilant to actually be able to get them. Between the animals and the other foragers, it's hard to get any.
Liz Reid: Do you know, like what are some spots that you go to? Do you have a favorite spot?
Maggie Flinn: Oh, we wouldn’t give that away.
Liz Reid: Why not?
Maggie Flinn: I just told you about the competition. [LAUGHING]
Kate Fleitz: There was a park nearby and they have a hike every year and they tell you to bring a bag. So I figured, you know, they know where the pawpaws are. I didn't go on the hike. I went — I saw where they were meeting. And I went the week before and found where the Pawpaws were.
Dan Pashman: Back in the woods with Sara, we’ve been hacking our way through brambles and branches for about a half hour. And then...
Sara Bir: Oh my God!
Dan Pashman: What? what? what? What?! Did you find one.
Sara Bir: This is a baby one. Oh, hello. Hello. Here's just a little tiny young one. Look at its beautiful leaves. So I think it's notable that this is — this is a pawpaw. OK, so we have achieved phase one. I would say this is like maybe a year or two old. It's not that big, but the leaves are really big. They have these long tapered leaves. And to my mind, they have a bit of a jungly look to them.
Dan Pashman So we found our first pawpaw tree here.
Sara Bir: We did!
Dan Pashman: But this is a baby. So there's no hope of there being fruit at this point. Sara is now petting the pawpaw.
Sara Bir: I do this with lots of plants that I love that won't give me rashes. Right? Like, I just want to thank them for existing because they've brought so much joy to my life. Plants are great listeners because they don't care about your feelings. It just makes me feel like I'm existing as part of the larger fabric of the world.
Dan Pashman: So, I think, I feel good that we've already found signs of pawpaw life here.
Sara Bir: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: In these woods. But this is a baby and we want — we're hoping to find some fruit. So let's keep going.
Sara Bir: Yeah, yeah.
Dan Pashman: You lead the way, Sara. Which way?
Dan Pashman: Coming up, will my quest with Sara bear fruit? Plus, we talk to someone who’s trying to grow pawpaws, despite the fact that they’re famously fickle. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. If you haven’t listened to last week’s episode with Stanley Tucci, listen to it right after you finish this one because it does not disappoint. The internet’s favorite Negroni-maker is a Hollywood actor, who’s managed to build much of his career around food. He offers me lessons on how to eat on camera convincingly, and analyzes the similarities between restaurants and the theater. You know, backstage? That's like the kitchen. On stage...
CLIP (STANLEY TUCCI): On stage, in the dining room, everything is controlled. You know, every cue is being picked up, every mark is being hit, every table's being served properly, blah, blah, blah. And then backstage and in the kitchen, it's like a fucking — it's like an asylum. And that? I love that. I love that.
Dan Pashman: Plus, Stanley tells me about his experience with oral cancer, and how that almost robbed him of his ability to enjoy food. That one is up in your podcast feed right now.
Dan Pashman: Okay, we’ll get back to my pawpaw mission in the woods in a bit, but the woods aren’t the only place you can find these fruits. People do grow them. Problem is, it’s hard.
Dan Pashman: The trees need specific conditions to fruit. Shade when they’re small, sun when they’re bigger. And then once the fruit is harvested, it doesn't keep well. So unlike, say, a red delicious apple that’s been bred to last a long time after it’s picked, so it can be shipped to a store and sit on the shelf for a week, the pawpaw needs to be eaten within a couple days.
Dan Pashman: Kentucky State University has the only full-time pawpaw research program in the world, and they’re trying to develop new varieties of pawpaws that might be easier to mass-produce. You can buy seeds from them now. But I wanted to talk to one of the few people who’s trying to grow pawpaw trees on a smaller scale.
Roo George-Warren: I have no background in agriculture, my degree is in opera. Um...
Dan Pashman: You should write an opera about the pawpaw.
Roo George-Warren: [SINGS] We love the pawpaw. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yes!
Dan Pashman: This is DeLesslin George-Warren, but most people call him by his nickname, Roo. Roo is a citizen of Catawba Nation, a federally-recognized tribe with trust land in North and South Carolina.
Dan Pashman: Roo started learning about pawpaws a few years ago. He grew up near the Catawba reservation, then left to go to college and work in D.C. He moved back in 2017 to work with the tribe. Originally, he was focused on the Catawba language.
Roo George-Warren: Coming back and working on the language, what I realized in diving into our language resources and the historical texts, is that I couldn’t know the language until I knew the land. And so that’s when that started kind of expanding into understanding what are our native plants, what can we forage for, what are our agricultural traditions. And so from there, it grew into larger community work on food.
Dan Pashman: Why couldn’t you know the language until you knew the land?
Roo George-Warren: So every language, right, is full of the values and understandings of the people who came before. Right? And so Catawba is unique from European languages because it was developed on these lands. Right? And so everything about the language is structured around our relationships and understandings with the land. So for example, the word nature doesn’t really exist in Catawba. The word you’d use is basically just outside. Because there’s not this philosophical underpinning in Catawba that nature and humanity are separate. And so being able to even use the language properly requires kind of understanding the land and back and forth, back and forth.
Dan Pashman: As Roo continued his research, he also got involved in gardening and food projects on the reservation. He attended a permaculture training program in Asheville. That’s where an instructor introduced him to the pawpaw and where he ate his first one. He was drawn to the taste and he loved the story.
Roo George-Warren: I mean, just thinking in terms of deep time, what sort of series of events had to happen for pawpaws to be able to come up and adapt to places where it's actually freezing, where most of their relatives are in South America, where it's not freezing?
Dan Pashman: So this plant is explained to you. What are you thinking?
Roo George-Warren: I'm thinking I want to grow this, like it sounds like such an amazing plant.
Dan Pashman: A year after Roo attends this workshop, he has his chance. The tribe gets a grant to plant indigenous fruit and nut trees around the reservation’s cultural center. But they have to decide which trees. Roo starts asking community elders: What trees do you remember from your childhood that you don’t see around anymore? They mention persimmons, mulberries, and black cherries. Not pawpaws.
Dan Pashman: So they plant those fruits the elders remember, but they also plant pawpaws. Since pawpaws are native to Catawba lands, Roo figures Catawbas must have interacted with them at some point. And regardless of the history, Roo has a certain way of looking at his mission.
Roo George-Warren: We’re not just trying to recapture, record, and freeze our culture. Right? Because Catawba culture was different from 1491 to 1770 to 1850 to now. Right? It's constantly changing as all cultures do. And so part of it is protecting the things that are in our living memory. But it's also bringing in more things into our culture, expanding our understanding as Catawbas. And so part of that is turning back to the land and remembering that the land was our first teacher. Right? Catawba has learned how to live on the land from the land itself. And so that means even though we don't have records of how Catawba used pawpaws or how to work for pawpaws, for example, it doesn't mean that that's not something that, you know, that we can't start integrating back into our culture.
Dan Pashman: Roo and other Catawba citizens planted those trees 3 and a half years ago. Since then, Roo has learned firsthand how fickle they can be.
Roo George-Warren: So we kind of took an approach called STUN: Supreme Total and Utter Neglect.
Dan Pashman: Is that a technical term? Is that what the botanists call it?
Dan Pashman: It turns out, yes. This is a term in permaculture.
Roo George-Warren: You're not trying to cultivate the plants that need the most care. You're trying to cultivate the most resilient plants and so you...
Dan Pashman: This is like the cry it out approach to parenting.
Roo George-Warren: Exactly. Exactly. Give them some good soil. Give them some water. When you first them, we got you.
Dan Pashman: Right. Look, we fed you, kid. Your crib is very comfortable. You're going to have figure out how to sleep.
Roo George-Warren: That's on you. Which, is kind of nerve wracking because it is a high loss kind of strategy.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Roo George-Warren: But the ones that survive are not really requiring a lot of watering.
Dan Pashman: It’ll be a few more years before the pawpaw trees flower. And then in order for those flowers to become fruit, they need to be pollinated. That’s another challenge, one that will require a more hands-on approach.
Roo George-Warren: So pollination of pawpaws is tricky because they rely on a different set of pollinators than what we're used to. When we're talking about pollinators, we're talking about a huge diversity of creatures.
Dan Pashman: Not just the birds and the bees?
Roo George-Warren: Right. And for pawpaws, it's actually flies and other detritivores that fertilize them. So if you are unlucky enough to be walking through a pawpaw patch when they are flowering, you will notice a light rotting stench. And that is actually their flowers, which are kind of these crimson red cup-shaped things that are trying to attract flies to them. So you hear stories about pawpaw growers, who will literally hang up rotting meat or rotting fish in their pawpaw patches to get more flies, to be able to come to the patch and pollinate them.
Dan Pashman: Huh. Well, you know, it depends on what floats your pollinators' boat.
Roo George-Warren: Exactly. Whatever the pollinators are into.
Dan Pashman: Have you thought about that first season when your pawpaw trees start to flower and you start to get fruit?
Roo George-Warren: Yeah. Every year we have what's called Yap Ye Iswa Festival, which is the day of the river people. In our language, we call ourselves the River People because we've been living along the Catawba River, archeologists tell us, for six thousand to ten thousand years. And so every year we have a fall festival. And so I would love to do some pawpaw ice cream or something as part of that festival because most people haven't heard of it or tried it in my community. And so that for me feels like the next step of the pawpaw journey for my community is just getting people to taste it.
Dan Pashman: Back in the woods with Sara, I’m still hoping to get my first taste of pawpaw. As we move deeper in, we seem to be getting a little closer to something.
Dan Pashman: All right, what do you see Sara? I see kind of a clearing. It looks like it's a little clear. Like is that kind of — is that one over there?
Sara Bir: That should be a pawpaw. Yes. Yes.
Dan Pashman: So we are standing before the biggest pawpaw tree I've ever seen. I still don't see any fruit. But this one, the top leaf is taller than my head.
Sara Bir: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So it's six and a half feet tall.
Sara Bir: And there are — Okay, so there's a smaller one over there and I feel like there have to be more because there's not a critical mass of them worthy enough to be noted through the grapevine. You know what I'm talking about?
Dan Pashman: You haven't seen something big enough for it to be like a thing people talk about.
Sara Bir: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. That's just my my guess is that there's a motherlode that we haven't come across. I'm going to — it'll be a modest mother lode. But I think I think there's something more notable here. One of the reasons I love pawpaws so much is they're only here when they're here. And you're not even sure that's going to happen. A couple of years ago, there was an early frost. I found one pawpaw. You just get what you get. But if I go to the store, I can get carrots and kale and mangoes in Marietta, Ohio, anytime I want 24 hours a day. But you can only have pawpaws a couple of weeks a year and it gives me a big appreciation, for just how much work it takes to eat, period.
Dan Pashman: I mean, if in fact, we don't find actual pawpaw fruits, I will be a little disappointed. But, you know, maybe that's the lesson in all this, Sara. That's what makes ‚ that's what you said, that's what makes the pawpaw special. If we just wandered 10 minutes into the woods and found a bunch, then it wouldn't be pawpaws.
Sara Bir: Yeah. Yes. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don't.
Dan Pashman: If you do find pawpaws, there are a few things you can do with them, which Sara covers in her Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. You can make custardy desserts like flan, cheesecake, key lime pie with pawpaws. Or you can use them to flavor savory sauces, like Sara’s South Carolina Mustard Pawpaw Barbecue Sauce, or her pawpaw chutney, sort of like a mango salsa. You can make blended drinks like a pawpaw lassi, or baked sweets like chocolate chip pawpaw tea cake. But when you’re cooking with pawpaws, there is a catch.
Dan Pashman: You said in your email that pawpaw sometimes induced vomiting.
Sara Bir: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Why? How?
Sara Bir: There is a compound in there, and in the seeds as well, that induces vomiting.
Dan Pashman: In large quantities these compounds can cause intestinal distress. They’re also thought to be a neurotoxin. So don’t eat several pawpaws a day. And also watch out if you’re drying or dehydrating them. That will concentrate the compound and make it more potent. Sara says, in general, you have to be careful when cooking pawpaws.
Dan Pashman: But if you eat the pawpaw when it's ripe without the seeds, you won't have that issue.
Sara Bir: You should not have that issue. No.
Dan Pashman: Sara and I keep at it, and a few minutes later…
Sara Bir: Uh, yeah, I feel very, very...
Dan Pashman: Look! What? Go, go! Let's go! Roll out! She sees something. Sara sees something. We're going deeper into the woods.
Sara Bir: I’m now walking through some sawgrass, which is invasive. But here we go here. Here is a bigger one.
Dan Pashman: Ohhh.
Sara Bir: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: This is a big —
Sara Bir: When you're —
Dan Pashman: This —
Sara Bir: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: This is — yes. This is a tree. This is an actual tree.
Sara Bir: How many feet tall would you say that is, Dan? I'm terrible at that kind of thing.
Dan Pashman: I mean, it's more — I think it's more than double my height. So I would say it's like 14 feet tall.
Sara Bir: Yeah. This is — I would say this is a like an average size mature pawpaw tree that you would run across in the woods and then it has some baby pawpaws down here.
Dan Pashman: But I still don't see any fruit, right?
Sara Bir: Yes.
Dan Pashman: There's no fruit here.
Sara Bir: What I'm doing right now is looking down because it's possible that, like even a month ago this fruited and then bloop, bloop, bloop, all the fruit dropped. But it's also possible somebody came and cleared it out because they had been keeping tabs on it. Like the Sara Bir of where we are came and —
Dan Pashman There's no other Sara Bir.
Dan Pashman: If Sara finds seeds or scraps lying around, that would suggest the ripe pawpaws fell to the ground and animals ate them. But she finds nothing. Which means it’s more likely that either this tree didn’t fruit this year or someone beat us to it.
Dan Pashman: There are a couple other fully grown pawpaw trees near this one, but it’s the same story with each one. No fruit. This seems like the end of our road. We’ve been out here for almost two hours. We’ve scoured just about every inch of this little patch of wilderness.
Dan Pashman So, Sara, it looks like we might not find any pawpaw fruit.
Sara Bir: No. It looks like we might not. I'm not — I'm not getting the feeling and not getting the smell either. The smell is another tell. But we saw some trees and have really enjoyed ourselves, and I think I'd prefer that rather than like having a crummy time and finding some fruit.
Dan Pashman: At this point, Sara stops and looks at me with a twinkle in her eye.
Sara Bir: Would you like to eat a pawpaw right now?
Dan Pashman: Did you bring a pawpaw?
Sara Bir: I did.
Dan Pashman: Awesome. Sure. Let's do it.
Sara Bir: Yeah. This is not —
Dan Pashman: This is plan B.
Sara Bir: This is plan B forest bathing.
Dan Pashman: She's pulled out pawpaws wrapped in a paper towel.
Sara Bir: Yes. This is not how you find them in the wild is wrapped in a paper towel. So I am looking for one…
Dan Pashman: So these are pawpaws that you foraged.
Sara Bir: These are from Ohio. Yes. These do — I deliberately chose ones that seemed like they could have come from a woods like this. Like, these are not prime specimens. They're going to be lovely. But these aren't the ones that would be like entered in the best pawpaw contest. They're just very average pawpaws.
Dan Pashman: Sara picked these two days earlier. They’re oblong, on the small side. One fits in the palm of my hand. They have the coloring of a speckled green pear.
Dan Pashman: OK, I'm ready. Let's do this.
Sara Bir: Okay, okay.
Dan Pashman: Do I need a knife?
Sara Bir: You should be able to just tear into it with your hands.
Dan Pashman: Just rip it open.
Sara Bir: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Like dig my thumbs into it and pull it apart?
Sara Bir: Yeah, there's that kind of a not wrong way.
Dan Pashman: All right. All right. I'm digging my thumbs in.
Sara Bir: At least in this context.
Dan Pashman: It pulls right apart. The skin is not too thick. It is very juicy. Kind of mushy, like you say, custardy. I see the black seeds.
Sara Bir: There are the black seeds,
Dan Pashman: The flesh is yellow, bright yellow
Sara Bir: So I would say to slurp out — slurp out some of the flesh and then spit out the seed.
Dan Pashman: Okay. Can I just bite into the flesh.
Sara Bir: Yeah, yeah. Just go for it.
Dan Pashman: The fruit is a challenge to eat. A lot of seeds in relation to flesh. But once you navigate all that, and take a taste?
Sara Bir: You're thinking.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, there's something like a little bit sort of funky to it. I keep trying to think of like, oh, it tastes like this other thing that people will know, but I can't think of what that is.
Sara Bir: It tastes of many things and also none of them. That's what's really hard about this to articulate, I think.
Dan Pashman: Mmm. I'm getting the hang of eating it. The word that I kept reading was custardy of the texture inside, and I think that's a very good description. It's almost like flan. It's not the kind of thing you sink your teeth into. It's sort of like very kind of melty.
Sara Bir: Yes. Yes. Melty for sure. If you can sink your teeth into it. It's going to taste disgusting because it's not ripe.
Dan Pashman: Most people said it tasted like a banana-mango combo. To me this one’s more like papaya-passion fruit — tart, almost citrusy. That could be my perception, or it could just be that wild pawpaws vary from one tree to the next.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, I think you're right, the part of the reason why it's so — such a weird sensation to eat it is that it feels totally out of place. It's like I feel like I'm on vacation. Like I'm not here. I couldn't — how could I be here and be eating this? I have to be — I must be somewhere else.
Sara Bir: There's a disconnect about it that is, for me, completely compelling. And I get excited about it every year. And I forget what it's like to eat a pawpaw. And then I think, will they even come back? Do pawpaws even exist? And then they do come back and they'll be like, "Do I even like pawpaws?". And then eventually I'll come across the first ripe one I come across and I get to experience that all over again. And it's so fun and reassuring. I'm like, "Oh yeah, I do love pawpaws after all." There we go. OK, Dan is flinging the juice out of his hand and now —
Dan Pashman: Licking my fingers.
Sara Bir: Licking your fingers and step three, if you like, is wipe them on your pants.
Dan Pashman: Mm. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Sara eats the other pawpaw she brought. And then...
Dan Pashman What should I do with the rest of this? Should I just...
Sara Bir: Okay. This is fun.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Sara Bir: What you can do is increase the genetic diversity of the paw paws here.
Dan Pashman Yes, I can throw these. I can drop these seeds around and we can start we can expand the patch.
Sara Bir: Yeah, totally. See, I call this a pawpaw bomb. They'll be more.
Dan Pashman: I'm just throwing them all around. I'm throwing the seeds all around.
Sara Bir: Whooooo!
Dan Pashman: Well, thank you, Sara. This is super fun.
Sara Bir: This has been super fun. I feel like we cover a lot of ground.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Sara Bir: Both physically and existentially.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: On my three-hour voyage home, I reflect on what just happened. Part of me feels like I crossed through the pawpaw portal that Sara talked about. The world looks different. As I pass other woods, I think about what wonders might be in there. But then I also start asking the same question Sara said she asks at the end of every pawpaw season. Did that really happen? Do pawpaws even exist?
Dan Pashman: Then, a couple days later, I’m scrolling through instagram, and I stop on a photo. I’m like, “That thing looks familiar. Wait a second. That’s a pawpaw! What’s a pawpaw doing in my Instagram feed?!” It’s my friend and neighbor, chef Ron Fan, who you’ll remember from my early pasta testing. He just got his hands on some pawpaws and he’s cooking with them. I send him a text. He asks if I want to stop by to try some samples. So it turns out I didn’t have to travel three hours to find a pawpaw after all. Ron’s pawpaws were grown by a local farmer on Long Island.
Ron Fan: Yeah, he set up behind a convent. He laid out a couple feet of wood chips. He just has all these random trees out there. And pawpaw is one of them.
Dan Pashman: How’d you get hooked up with this guy?
Ron Fan: He’s been advertising on Facebook a little bit, doing weird little videos telling people, yeah, you should try this fruit.
Dan Pashman: So this is your first time eating. First time cooking with pawpaws?
Ron Fan: Yes, absolutely. The first time I’ve seen a pawpaw was just two days ago.
Dan Pashman: Would you rather have that than just going to the supermarket and getting a banana and a lychee or a mango or a passionfruit?
Ron Fan: Yeah, absolutely. Because it’s local. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So you decided to make what with the pawpaw?
Ron Fan: A creme brûlée.
Dan Pashman: Are you gonna brûlée this creme right in front of me?
Ron Fan: Absolutely.
Dan Pashman: Here comes the brûlée, the blowtorch.
[SOUND OF A BLOWTORCH]
Dan Pashman: As Ron torches the sugar, he tells me something else. It’s not just this farmer in the area. A local chocolatier is working on a new confection featuring pawpaws. We don’t usually cover food trends on The Sporkful but I’m starting to think we may have stumbled onto the biggest thing since arugula got put in a bag.
Ron Fan: Super. All right.
Dan Pashman: After Ron’s done brûlée-ing, he pours a splash of rum over the top, then sets it on fire. Lets it cook off for a minute. Ron breaks up the hard sugar top so the rum can flow down into the custard.
Rowan Fan: Pawpaw, pawpaw.
Dan Pashman: That’s right, Rowan. Very good.
Ron Fan: There you go.
Dan Pashman: Oh my God. That looks ridiculous. Oh my God. That is so good. Now the real question is do I save this for Janie or not.
Ron Fan: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Sorry, Janie. I’m really, really sorry.
Dan Pashman: If you want to see a photo of the pawpaw creme brulee, and more pics from my adventures in the woods with Sara Bir, check out my Instagram. Which is also the best place for pasta updates! I am @The Sporkful.
Dan Pashman: My thanks to Sara Bir, author of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook, which you can buy wherever books are sold. And if you want to learn more about Roo George-Warren’s work with Catawba Nation, you can go to catawba.com.
Dan Pashman: Also special thanks to Sheri Crabtree at Kentucky State University, Liz Reid, and all of the people who spoke with Liz at the pawpaw festival: Allison Brady, Blake and John Estep, Emily and Kate Fleitz, Maggie Flinn, Kristin Harnish, Mark Hildebrand, Griffin Kennedy, M Onion, and Vic and Vikki Rose.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, I talk with cookbook author and TV host Pati Jinich. Pati grew up in Mexico, lives in the U.S., and has devoted her life to sharing the pleasures and intricacies of Mexican food with an American and global audience.