My older brother spent one summer working as a horticulturist’s assistant at the PPG Aquarium in Pittsburgh, and though the job drew a lot of complaints, I gleaned some very important information from his labors. Several trees that arched beautifully over the piranha tank had to be kept pruned, of course, and their tropical look and pretty white flowers made them an important part of the Amazonian landscape.
When my brother’s boss admitted to him that these trees in fact produced clusters of her favorite fruit of all time, I was immediately intrigued. After all, fruit is my muse, and the prospect of trying something that came so highly recommended had me salivating.
The work ended before the fruit was ripe, so I missed out on my chance to try it, but not before finding out that it was called a pawpaw.
Some online research led me to find that, not only did the fruit have its own league of devotees, but also that the shiny-leafed, tropical-looking plant was, in fact, native to North America and actually cultivated in the Northeast. Wow — amazing and accessible? Naturally, I put it on my “things to eat” list and promptly forgot about it.
Fast forward to last spring, when a freak showing of Disney’s The Jungle Book sparked my memory. “You don’t need to use the paw,” croons Baloo in a song, “when you pick the pear of the big pawpaw.” Oh, right — I wanted to try one of those!
I mentioned pawpaw procurement to a friend (an avid Dilmun Hill devotee) and found that I could give one of the fruits a shot here at Cornell, so long as I could contain myself until October. Very well.
Right before fall break, the same friend came to me with a gigantic grin on her face and told me that the pawpaws were in season and that she had tried one and found it very much to her liking. Most people, she told me, said the flavor was somewhere between mango and banana, though she found it closer to the South American custard-apple that she tried while studying abroad in Peru (not too surprising, considering the fact that the pawpaw and custard-apple are in the same horticultural family).
She said, I could try one too — the Cornell Orchards just got some in! Being a sucker for new stuff, I had no choice but to go and buy some.
I have a pawpaw fruit sitting right next to me on the desk. It’s relatively small, around four inches long and an inch or so in diameter, though I saw bigger ones on the display at the Orchards. Its skin is thin, roughly the same green as a D’Anjou pear and mottled with some dark brown; the fruit itself is soft and sweet-smelling, even with the skin on.
It’s rather tough to cut in half; shiny black-brown seeds the size of almonds are embedded in the flesh, so I had to twist to get it apart. The flesh inside is a nice custardy yellow and is extremely soft, almost like eating a slightly firm pudding — it just melts away in my mouth with the slightest of tongue pressure.
The flavor itself is something between a banana and a mango with a hint of pear, and the pawpaw is very fragrant and sweet. It’s a bit of a pain to eat around the seeds, but I managed by scooping out spoonfuls and separating out the seeds with my tongue. Overall, it’s quite delicious and even a somewhat sensual fruit to eat. Being a very texture-sensitive person, however, I would prefer something with a consistency more like a mango.
Nevertheless, the pawpaw is definitely something that even a slightly adventurous person should try.
At the time of writing, pawpaw fruit was available at the Cornell Orchards at the price of $2/lb. Due to the highly perishable nature of the fruit, it may or may not be available this weekend, but a trip to the Orchards is always worth it.