By Patrick Sewell
With rising gas prices, global warming and the recent movement towards green living, the idea of eating local has been getting a lot of attention recently. After all, the benefits to eating closer to home are pretty impressive: shrink your carbon footprint, support the local economy, eat more nutritious and healthy whole foods, and possibly even save a couple of bucks in the process. Now you can add one more reason to the list for eating local, and it’s one you can grow in your yard—pawpaws.
You may have already heard of pawpaws (Asimina triloba), a small, tropical looking tree with large, drooping leaves and large, three-lobed flowers that look like inverted trilliums. A native butterfly attractor (pawpaws are the sole source of food for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly larvae), pawpaws are often grown ornamentally for conservation and aesthetic purposes. But it is the fruit of the tree that attracts many pawpaw enthusiasts. Having the look and feel of an oblong mango with large, bean-like seeds, pawpaw fruit can grow up to six inches long and weigh as much as two and a half pounds, earning them the honor of being the largest native fruit in the continental United States. This fact alone may entice a gardener to add a few pawpaw trees to their landscape, yet what is most interesting about the fruit is its unique flavor.
One of the perceived downsides to eating locally is a loss of food choices. This can be especially noticeable with fruits since some of the most popular—bananas, oranges, mangoes and grapefruit—are of the tropical variety. As delicious as local grapes are, the banana is America’s favorite fruit. Pawpaws are part of the Annonaceae, the cherimoya and custard apple family, a group whose members tend to grow in strictly tropical regions. This tropical heritage comes out in the pawpaw’s intense flavor, which is remarkable for a fruit that grows in the Finger Lakes region. Known colloquially as the “the poor man’s banana” or “the Hoosier banana,” pawpaws are often described as a cross somewhere between a mango, papaya and banana, and they fit the taste niche we often crave for tropical fruit, especially around breakfast time.
In addition to their distinctive flavor, pawpaws also bring plenty of nutrition to the table. Compared to three of the most popular fruits in the American diet—bananas, apples and oranges—pawpaws generally contain as much or more potassium, riboflavin, iron (20 to 70 times the amount of the other three), niacin, manganese, magnesium, calcium (one and a half times as much as an orange and about 10 times as much as an apple or a banana), phosphorus and zinc. Pawpaws also boast high levels of vitamin C (one third as much as an orange), and most of the essential amino acids. The relatively high fat content in the pawpaw also makes it a good substitute for oil in baked goods, while the taste makes for an interesting replacement in any recipe that calls for bananas.
Those concerned more about how a food is grown than where it comes from will also find pawpaws to be a nice addition to their diet. Their native genetics give them a resistance to many diseases and naturally-occurring toxins in the leaves and twigs mitigate the need for spraying. They also make the leaves unpalatable to deer, though raccoons, opossums and squirrels will eat the fruit.
Still, for all of their benefits, pawpaws are difficult to find and relatively unknown to most people. Currently, no major grocery store chain carries the fruit fresh and very few have pawpaw products. Why aren’t pawpaws more readily available? Efforts to domesticate the pawpaw began in the early twentieth century and the American Genetics Association even sponsored a contest to find the best pawpaw. However, the pawpaw industry never really developed due to the highly perishable nature of the fruits. Pawpaws soften rapidly at room temperature and have a relatively short shelf-life. They are also highly prone to bruising; couple that with their irregular shape and turning pawpaws into a reliable export makes for a formidable task. As an alternative, some growers have begun experimenting with selling the pulp frozen, and there are even specialty products like pawpaw ice cream, compote, jam, wine and beer.
If you have a green thumb and want to try growing some pawpaws of your own, the Plantsmen Nursery in Lansing and RPM Ecosystems in Dryden sell pawpaw trees, though both are sold out this year. For some growing tips, William Cullina’s Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants, available at the local library, has a wealth of information on cultivating native trees, including pawpaws. You can also find information and some links to other pawpaw resources at Cornell’s website: www.hort.cornell.edu/extension/commercial/fruit/mfruit/pawpaw.html.
While pawpaw fruit availability is pretty limited in the area (the only place that currently has fruit-producing pawpaw trees is Cornell’s Lansing Orchards and the only place to buy fresh pawpaws is at the Cornell Orchards store located off Route 366—the good news is they are ripe and for sale right now), they are definitely worth seeking out. Ithaca is lucky to have pawpaws as a local food option and a strong market demand would no doubt entice some of the local growers to try it as a possible product. While it is a bit idealistic to think that pawpaws will completely replace the imported crops we have come to rely on, they can certainly do a lot to reduce our carbon fruit-print.
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September brings the anniversary of Brazil's declaration of independence after centuries of Portuguese rule, the birthdays of legendary boxer "Rocky" Marciano, writer Truman Capote, and American revolutionary Samuel Adams ("I'll have a Samuel Jackson"), and the autumnal equinox. Summer's over ... how short it was. While I will lament the end of summer until it returns again, we can at the very least look forward to the rich and vibrant local harvest that continues on through this most comfortable of months. Stick and Stone Farm brings us delicious heirlooms tomatoes, green beans, and three kales: Red Russian, dino, and curly. We've got local apples — Sansa, Cox Orange Pippin, Pink Pearl, and more; and plums — Castelton, Long John, Fortune — from Black Diamond Farm; plus more veggies from Blue Heron Farm — broccoli, celery, cilantro, garlic, red potatoes, and tomatoes. Here comes fall, "que sera sera."