Though the pawpaw grows wild in 26 states, the fruit remains a mystery to many Americans. Andrew Moore, author of Pawpaw, says that wasn't always the case.

Joe Yonan: I was so surprised to find out that the largest edible fruit native to the U.S. is a pawpaw.

Andrew Moore Andrew Moore Photo: Jonathan Yahalom

Andrew Moore: That’s right. Which was something that struck me -- how does something that’s this big go largely unnoticed by most Americans? I learned that this wasn’t actually always the case. At one time Americans were entirely familiar with pawpaws, going back to the Native Americans, who ate the fruit, who used the tree’s fiber for cordage and rope, on down through the earliest explorers, colonists and pioneers. The pawpaw was an important fruit and food item each year in late summer.

JY: It actually is tropical.

AM: That’s right. In many ways it’s a tropical fruit that has willed itself to grow in the temperate North, to grow where it probably shouldn’t. We know that over millennia it evolved to be here, but it is the only member of the tropical custard apple family that’s not found in the tropics.

JY: In fact, here in America there is something that you refer to as the "pawpaw belt." Can you explain that?

AM: The "pawpaw belt" is a term I use to refer to the states and regions where the pawpaw is native, where it grows wild. That encompasses parts of 26 eastern states. It spans from southern Louisiana to Ontario, Canada, from the Atlantic west to the Mississippi, and into Oklahoma and even Nebraska.

JY: What happened? Why did the pawpaw disappear from our tables?

AM: That’s the big question. That was the mystery that I was trying to get at in the book: How did Americans forget about this and why? The easiest way to explain it is that when Americans stopped going to the woods for food, they stopped knowing the pawpaw.

JY: What does a pawpaw taste like?

Pawpaw Pawpaw

AM: The pawpaw is commonly described as a cross between a mango and banana. That’s true.

But the first thing I like to describe is the texture. It has this tropical custard texture. That’s more similar to fruits you find in the Caribbean, fruits like guanabana and cherimoya, custard apples.

The best thing you can do with a ripe, fresh pawpaw is just to eat it out of hand. Cut it in half, scoop it out and eat it like a custard in a cup, which is essentially what it is.

But obviously if you have a lot of pawpaws growing, if you’ve come across a bumper crop in the woods, you’re going to want to do something with it. The second best way to enjoy a pawpaw is Pawpaw Ice Cream. It’s one of the best ice cream flavors I’ve ever tasted.

JY: I saw that there are even companies like Zingerman’s that are selling pawpaw ice cream. There are even pawpaw beers, right?

AM: Absolutely.

JY: How do I get my hands on pawpaws? How do we find them if we’re not foragers? Or do we need to be foragers to find them?

AM: No, increasingly you don’t need to be a forager to find a pawpaw. If you’re lucky, you might have pawpaws at your local farmers market. More and more folks are setting pawpaws out in orchards and growing them like you would any other fruit. Then other farmers are realizing that they have this fruit growing in the woods that they can harvest and bring to market. So if you’re lucky, you can go to your farmers market and you might see a pawpaw grower, or you might see someone who has begun to gather these from the woods and offer them for sale.

I think when you look at things like local food movements, the return to regional cuisines and regional foodways, I think people are naturally drawn to the pawpaw. I think people are excited by the story of the pawpaw. Certainly they are excited by the taste of it. They’re excited to return to some of these food roots that connect them to their grandparents' generation or previous generations. I see a lot of things happening in the current climate of food and agriculture that bodes well for the return of pawpaws.

Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is the Food and Dining editor of The Washington Post and author of Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook (Ten Speed Press, 2013).