I became obsessed with North Carolina's largest native fruit. Then I ate one.
Pawpaws grow wild in the woods all over the eastern United States. I decided that I had to eat them. Grow them. Share them. There was just one problem: I'd forgotten what they taste like.
When I worked at TV station in West Virginia some 20 years ago, I used to get calls from a guy named Maynard who lived on a ridge up above the Ohio River somewhere. I’d pick up the phone and Maynard would already be in mid-conversation with me, talking in a wavering sing-songy voice about something like a “big storm a’comin’,” and listening to “all of them hoot owls a’hootin’.” He liked talking about the weather, and gauged a storm’s severity by the intensity of the hoots. He’d also tell me about walking in the woods and picking pawpaws. Because I did not yet know what pawpaws were, and because I’d heard Maynard say some really far out stuff about hoot owls, I’d assumed that “pickin’ pawpaws” was code for “getting extremely high in the forest.”
One night, there was a buzz at the station’s side door. Standing there was a gentle giant of a man, wearing overalls and a worn out ball cap, with gray hair and a large smile. He was holding a cardboard box full of green fruit. “I picked you some pawpaws,” the man said, and I recognized Maynard’s voice immediately.
He just wanted to drop them off for us, because he’d talked to me and my coworkers so often that he considered us to be his friends. It was a sweet gesture, even if none of us really knew what to do with pawpaws. Maynard said that you ate them, but he’d also put some other plant in the box that severely triggered the allergies of a reporter sitting across the newsroom, who started sneezing ferociously. We decided to throw them out.
It’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve learned the facts about pawpaws. They’re the largest edible fruit native to North America. They’re fairly common in woods and forests. The fruits are a few inches long and ripen around here in North Carolina in late August and September, when they naturally start falling off the trees. Some hang by themselves, others hang in bunches. To eat one, you cut it open, pull out the large seeds, and scoop out the soft yellow innards, which are supposed to taste like banana custard with a hint of mango.
Pawpaws can be used in things like pies, cookies, and ice cream. They’re not sold in grocery stores because they only keep for a few days after they come off the tree. I’ve never really the fruit for sale at farmer’s markets either. Hence, if you want to eat a pawpaw, you have to find one. Probably in the woods. Usually late in the summer or early fall.
I saw pawpaws as a curiosity. But I started to obsess over them when I realized they could allow me to do two very appealing things simultaneously: growing fruit while putting in absolutely no work whatsoever.
Years ago, after I beat back the kudzu that had invaded the hillside next to my house, I began to dream of an orchard out there on the newly-cleared slope. I planted two apple trees and a peach tree with no idea of how to take care of them. Two years later, I got my first heavy crop of peaches, but most were wormy. Insects and cedar rust ravaged my apple trees. It was only then that I learned that growing fruit requires heavy doses of sprays and pruning.
At the farmer’s market, I asked if there was anything that I could plant that wouldn’t require hours of care and chemicals, and one guy suggested two native trees: persimmons and pawpaws. From there I started doing some research. The pawpaw won out. Persimmon trees were easier to find at nurseries and in the stalls at the market. Pawpaws, by comparison, seemed to have a cult-like appeal. There were festivals, sometimes. They were out in the woods, if you had time to wander. There was talk of a guy at the farmer’s market who sold seedlings, but I’d always be told that I’d just missed him. You could order trees off the internet from a place in Virginia, but they had several different varieties of pawpaw. Too much selection! Besides, I wanted the in-person experience.
So, one weekend in 2018, when my wife was out of town, I took the kids over to the agricultural extension office in Winston-Salem, which was holding a garden open house that included a pawpaw tasting. I wanted to make sure I enjoyed this fruit before I converted my hillside into an orchard. I ate one, then instantly forgot what it tasted like. That’s because, a few minutes later, I tripped on some stairs and gashed open my leg something awful. After an extension agent fetched me a first aid kit, I asked her if the guy selling trees was still there. “Just missed him,” she said.
A few weeks later, the pawpaw tree guy actually showed up at the farmer’s market. I immediately bought two small seedlings at $20 apiece. I planted them on the hillside. I rejoiced.
Within a week, a wild animal had snapped them both at the base.
Something had also eaten all of the leaves off of the mulberry and pecan trees I’d planted, and eventually snapped both of their trunks as well. I realized that anything edible that grew outside of my fence was doomed to be munched on by deer and groundhogs. My dream of an orchard was dead.
Then, in April, I got a new job, and in front of my office was a 15-foot-tall pawpaw tree, with more than a dozen fruits on it. It was a sign.
I started to tell my new coworkers about it. Do you even know what you have right there on the other side of the parking lot?! I’d say, as if I’d stumbled on the entrance to a gold mine. I found myself doing PR for the pawpaw for some reason, even though I couldn’t vouch for their taste, thanks to my memory-wiping leg injury. I futilely tried to remain calm and patient. After all, I had big plans for these pawpaws, which felt like the only ones in the known universe.
Then, as I was biking home from the auto repair shop on a hot August day, I saw a dozen pawpaw trees growing at the edge of a swamp. I went into a bit of a trance. I pulled over. I staggered over to the only tree that had fruit on it, which dangled dangerously over a creek. They looked ripe. I HAD TO HAVE ONE. I realized that the reason why these pawpaws were still there was because no animal could reach them. No smart animal, anyway, I thought, as I grabbed a small seedling with one hand and reached out with the other. I took a step forward on to what I thought was solid ground, but turned out to be a tangle of vines with leaves on the top. My foot stomped down, unexpectedly, into a brand new three-foot-deep hole. I nearly tumbled forward into the creek below but the tiny seedling held firm. My leg, now scratched up by brambles, held enough weight to allow me to lean about a foot forward, just enough to grab a branch and pull some pawpaws in. I was now sweaty, and hadn’t thought about exactly where I would put the fruit. So I pulled off as many as I could palm, anchored myself, and regained enough balance to pull my foot out of the hole.
I got home and immediately texted my wife: “I have very exciting news.”
Later, she and the kids watched as I cut one open. I pulled out the seeds. This was the moment. I took a spoon, and scooped out a big bite.
It was … okay. Not great. Not bad. Just … okay.
I can still salvage this, I thought. Maybe others, when introduced to the pawpaw, would find them to be tasty and exotic. But, true to her word, my wife passed on the pawpaw. So did many other people I knew. The few that did try them were honest with me. One friend, after tasting a pawpaw, responded with a smile and a forceful statement: “I did not enjoy that!”
Okay, I thought, what now? I’d been obsessed with a thing for years, only to discover that I really didn’t enjoy … that thing. I thought long and hard about this, about my tendency to have tunnel vision, to prefer the outlandish over the normal, to zig when others zag. I could have just, you know, figured out how to take care of the peaches and apples, two trees that I’d already planted. But no. I had to go HARD on this thing that, in the end, I merely tolerated and others couldn’t stand.
Oh no, I thought, I’ve become Maynard.
Which, maybe, wasn’t such a bad thing. Maynard was genuinely thrilled about his pawpaws, and he thought we might be too. That’s why he called so much: He just wanted to share things that he found interesting. Stories of hoot owls. Warnings about big ol’ storms a’comin’. Pawpaws. Right thar! In the woods! Maynard never convinced me to eat a large, wild fruit, or to understand his complex system of owl meteorology. But I loved his enthusiasm. I couldn’t help it. His excitement, every time, with every call, became my excitement, too.
I wondered what became of Maynard. A few months back, I messaged a friend who still works at the TV station in West Virginia. Maynard died last year, he responded. He’d had cancer that came back, or, maybe, never left. Shortly before his death, though, Maynard returned back to the station with a request. He asked to plant a tree for the people he considered to be his friends. The station said yes, and so Maynard dug a hole right there, not far from the side door, and placed the tree in the ground. The landscaping people come and prune it, my friend said. Each time, it grows back even bigger.
The tree wasn’t a pawpaw tree. But it’s still flourishing.
Jeremy--thanks for spreading (kind of) the gospel of pawpaws. Reasonable folks in the South (are there any?) can disagree about pawpaws, livermush, the Bible, and daylight savings time. You neglected to mention however an important additional benefit of the pawpaw. It is the only host for the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly. my best. Ray Owens
That was a beautiful story! Maynard's tree flourishing brought tears to my eyes. Thank you!