STORY BY CASSANDRA LING & DESIGN BY LISA DZERA
Wynn Dinnsen was working as a landscaper in North Carolina in the late 1990s when his friend, Chris Carter, handed him his first pawpaw.
“Do you know how to grow these?” Carter asked.
“I don’t even know what that is,” Dinnsen replied.
Dinnsen, filled with curiosity toward this mysterious fruit, asked him where he got it.
“That’s a secret,” Carter said.
A “secret” is the best way to describe this forgotten fruit. A pawpaw is one of the most abundant edible fruits native to North America. It grows wild along moist riverbanks. The fruit is shaped like a cashew or a mango, and tastes like a banana pudding meshed with caramel, with hints of tropical flavors. The inside of the fruit has a creamy texture with large brown seeds centered inside.
Pawpaw trees are plentiful in the eastern part of the United States, yet most people have never heard of them or don’t know what to do with them. The trees grow abundantly in the South, including North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky, but are indigenous to 26 states across the country.
The South continues to make an impression on the United States with its agricultural foundations, yet the pawpaw remains a largely forgotten entity that holds meaning for generations who grew up singing “Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch.” This enticing fruit has yet to be sold commercially, leaving it to grow wild instead of on the grocery store shelves. Curiosity about this fruit, however, is on the rise.
The earliest report of the pawpaw was in 1541, when the Spaniard Hernando de Soto made his expedition through the southeastern United States. Native Americans harvested the fruit because it is rich in nutritional value. It is also recorded that chilled pawpaw was George Washington’s favorite dessert, and Thomas Jefferson loved them so much he planted some at Monticello in Virginia. The culture and history of the fruit made it a promising commodity of the southeastern states, but it got lost as agriculture began to expand.
There are several reasons why the pawpaw has not developed into a commercial business. The main problem is its shelf life. Pawpaws rot within two days of harvesting, making them difficult to ship or sell. It is also difficult to sell the fruit year-round since pawpaws are available only during the fall months of September and October. For that reason, the fruit has never really had a chance to catch on.
Problems aside, Wynn Dinnsen grows about 280 trees and sells pawpaws locally. Dinnsen is a one-man show, and locals in central North Carolina refer to him as “Johnny Pawpawseed.” He grows, harvests, processes and delivers to buyers across the state. His main customers are local chefs, looking to differentiate their menus with exotic items and local ingredients. Most chefs in the area say pawpaws work best for custards, puddings and desserts.
Since the fruit is used in several recipes, Dinnsen also harvests and freezes the pulp, selling the frozen products as well as the fresh fruit to chefs. Other products such as jams, butters, ice cream and baked goods are also uses for pawpaw pulp.“As far as I know frozen pulp would be better and less risky than fresh produce, even more so than canning,” Dinnsen says.
Pawpaws are also a new component of the growing craft beer industry. Sean Wilson, owner of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina creates a pawpaw beer in the fall season.
“The tropical flavor of the fruit allows it to blend well with the yeast during fermentation,” Wilson says. “It also provides a unique, subtle addition to new experiments for the brewery.”
As chefs, brewers and other consumers are finding more uses for pawpaws, researchers are beginning to study the fruit. Since 1994, Kentucky State University has had the only full-time pawpaw research program in the world as part of the KSU Land Grant Program. There are more than 2,000 trees from 17 states at the KSU farm. Researchers study genetic diversity contained in the wild seeds, and have found numerous seed varieties. Sheri Crabtree, a horticulture research and extension associate at KSU, said they started the program because they are interested in high value crops for limited-resource farmers, and have a focus on sustainable agriculture.
“It’s such a unique niche crop with a lot of history in this area that not many people are growing on a commercial scale,” she said. “So there is a lot of opportunity there.”
Ohio has made the pawpaw its official fruit, and has the Annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival every September. But North Carolina is making sure the South is represented with a pawpaw festival every August.
As interest in the fruit intensifies, the South holds on to the pawpaw’s seeds of history. Despite the struggles commercially, pawpaws remain a native fruit with the potential to break into the mainstream market, perhaps in ice cream manufacturing or other frozen pulp businesses.
It is said that tasting a pawpaw right off the tree gives a great appreciation of the land and the wild fruit. If you ever come across one, imagine sitting next to Thomas Jefferson in Monticello singing “Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch.”