Pawpaws are America’s hidden edible treasure. Here’s how to pick them.

Externally, a papaya looks like a green mango. But inside you’ll find golden, pudding-like flesh encasing shiny, dark seeds. It tastes like a banana crossed with pineapple and mango, with notes of vanilla and some say melon. Its tropical flavors seem at odds with its native soil: the temperate forests of North America.

Believe it or not, delicious papaya is as American as apple pie and baseball. Indigenous communities cultivated it long before its first written record, as early as 1541. 1916 Farmers believed that pawpaw crops would be most likely to succeed ahead of other American favorites, including blueberries and cranberries. But eventually the papaya disappeared from the American consciousness.

The problem, experts say, is that both the harvest season and the fruit’s shelf life are unfortunately short. Pawpaw trees bear fruit for only about six weeks in late summer, the fruit bruises easily and lasts only a few days—about a week, refrigerated—after picking, presenting significant commercial challenges.

The good news is that the continent’s largest edible fruit (sometimes 6 inches long or longer) hasn’t disappeared from the American landscape. If you want to go hunting for papaya, now is the time to do so. You can find the fruit in the wild from late August to mid-October, from the mid-Atlantic to the Midwest and even in urban settings including Washington, DC

In all likelihood, you won’t find papayas in your local grocery store, and while you could find papayas at a local farmer’s market, it’s best to pick one fresh from a tree. Here’s what you need to know to choose a perfect papaya.

Pawpaw specifics

Culinary historians speculate that the papaya arrived in North America thousands of years ago, along with large animals migrating north.

For the Eastern Native American tribes, papaya has always been a staple food. Sean Sherman, co-owner of The Sioux Chef in Minneapolis and founder of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), says the disappearance of the papaya is closely linked to the shameful treatment of Native communities.

While foodies may say papaya is enjoying a renaissance, Sherman says it’s actually a revival of a long-buried culinary culture that was lost to the resettlement and genocide of indigenous peoples in North America.

Sherman says much of the native papaya growth was lost during colonial deforestation to make way for agriculture. Even so, the papaya that survived throughout Appalachia became part of that region’s culinary history.

Papaya cultivation is an important area of ​​study for Kirk Pomper, who directs the Papaya Research Program at Kentucky State University (KYSU). He helps farmers grow papaya in orchards and conducts scientific research to make papaya a more commercial crop. “Now that doesn’t mean we’re trying to make it the next apple or banana,” says Pomper, but it does mean breeding better-tasting varieties of the fruit.

Flavor matching is important, says Sheri Crabtree, a horticultural research and consulting associate at KYSU, since some wild papayas can have bitter or other “wrong” flavors; They can be “turpentine-like or just plain boring,” she says. “We’d like to have some more unique flavors among strains, like some strains have a more pronounced melon, coconut or pineapple flavor.”

Neal Peterson, who has studied the papaya since he first discovered it in West Virginia in the early 1970’s, is a breeder of some of the finest new varieties. Peterson, who majored in plant genetics and agricultural economics, spent decades growing, testing and tasting the fruit at the University of Maryland, breeding two of the finest strains: the Susquehanna and the Shenandoah.

Pawpaw cultivars are judged on flavor, yield, fruit size, texture, and disease resistance, Crabtree says. She adds that the “best strains” would be high-yielding trees that produce a papaya with “firmness and/or creaminess that isn’t watery, mushy, or gritty” and a lower seed percentage.

Hunt for papaya

Native to 26 states, the papaya can be found along the east coast between Ontario, Canada and northern Florida west to Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Nebraska, Kansas and even Texas.

Still, most people have never heard of the fruit. Even though he makes his Paw Paw Lemonade only about 30 minutes from town Paw Paw, West Virginia, Tom Helmick says about 60 percent of his customers have no prior knowledge of the fruit. He expects a different reaction at the upcoming 24th annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival, which draws 10,000 people and is one of at least 13 pawpaw festivals held each fall. Helmick will be among the vendors selling everything from papaya ice cream and cakes to papaya jams and beer.

The papaya has also found a home on seasonal restaurant menus across the country. “Interest in locally sourced and sustainably grown foods, the Slow Food movement, and greater consumer acceptance of the fruit,” are all keys to increasing the papaya’s appeal, says Crabtree.

When chef Pepe Moncayo of DC’s Cranes serves papaya (last year fermented papaya in a kombucha sauce served with pink snapper), 95 percent of his guests ask what it is. So he added a little show-and-tell. “We introduce the dish verbally, and when eyebrows raise an eyebrow, we bring a piece of fruit and show them,” says Moncayo.

Chef William Dissen, who runs three restaurants in North Carolina, including The Market Place in Asheville uses papaya in season for ice cream, vinegar, pies, barbecue sauces, and cakes. Because it’s “very volatile and quickly loses flavor and vibrancy when cooked,” Allison Sesnovich, a pastry chef at Mabel Gray outside of Detroit, sticks to creations that don’t require heat, like her “Pawnoffee” cake, a nod to the Briten Banoffee, this is a classic cake with bananas, cream and caramel.

If you really want to go wild with papaya, head to Hocking Hills, Ohio and the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls. At the hotel’s restaurant, chef Matt Rapposelli serves up papaya cocktails, dressings, marinades, and cheesecakes, while the on-site spa offers papaya facials.

Papaya trees are plentiful in the DC area – watch out for the undergrowth of 15- to 30-foot-tall trees with large, pointed oval leaves. If you don’t want to put your hiking boots on, you’ll find them in the middle of the District in the gardens surrounding the National Museum of the American Indian or the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Just know that any fruit you may see growing is not for picking, but for beholding.

For a papaya harvest, visit a sunlit trail near the popular C&O Canal, where the National Park Service allows the collection of up to half a gallon of papaya per day for personal use. A National Historical Park, the canal features a 184.5-mile towpath that meanders along the Potomac River, near waterfalls and rapids, and alongside waterways where papayas thrive.

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