September brings the season for one of the Philadelphia region's sweetest natural treats. It's a fruit — in fact, North America's largest edible native fruit — and was a favorite dessert of President George Washington. Yet few even know it exists.
What is this secret delight? The pawpaw, also known as the "hillbilly mango" and more recently, the "hipster banana," jovial nicknames that together hint at its distinctive taste.
The greenish-yellow fruit is about three to six inches long, similar to the shape of a small champagne mango. Inside is a sweet, pale yellow flesh with large, easily removable black seeds and a creamy texture — too soft to dice. The flavor is full of tropical notes, like the aforementioned mango and banana, along with hints of both pineapple and papaya, and a very slight bitter element that faintly lingers after eating.
"It's native to our region, but it's not the easiest thing to get, so there's this novelty aspect," said chef Ari Miller, recently speaking at a "Recipes From the Paw Paw Patch" event at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Culinary Literacy Center. "When you eat it, it doesn't necessarily feel like a 'luxury' in an adult sense, but like the luxury of when you're a child and you get a gumball or a ring pop. You sort of can't believe you got it, which makes it that much better."
Simply slice and slurp the custardy inside, spitting out the seeds and discarding the skin. The experience should leave your hands a little messy, a dribble of juice running down your face. It should feel delightful, kidlike, almost primal. If you're lucky, you'll be enjoying it under a shady forest canopy, the kind of setting where patches of pawpaw trees thrive.
Pawpaws trees grow in most of the eastern half of the United States, and as far west as Nebraska. They are mentioned in a 1541 report from Hernando de Soto's expedition of North America, and are known as a favorite of the earliest Americans.
They fell out of favor, though: Because pawpaws bruise easily, they don't transport well, and their shelf life is short — two factors that don't line up with the business model of big agriculture.
"They're not a viable commercial crop, unlike, for instance, apples that are picked and can last for months with proper storage," says Phil Forsyth, executive director of the Philadelphia Orchard Project. "These you pick and need to eat within a few days."
Forsyth said, though, that here in the Philadelphia region, pawpaws are actually quite easy to grow, and when in season, there are a variety of places to find them. The season, which got a late start due to cool spring temperatures and wet summer weather, is expected to last through early October.
The Philadelphia Orchard Project has helped to plant and cultivate pawpaw trees at a dozen sites around the city, but most locations aren't open to the public. The Fairmount Park Horticulture Center's Food Forest, however, has three pawpaw trees from which anyone can harvest fruit, any day of the week. Find the Food Forest at 100 N. Horticultural Drive., near the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden.
When pawpaws are in season, area co-ops like Weavers Way and Mariposa Food Co-Op often have them for sale, as do some of the farmer's markets in the area, including Weavers Way's Henry Got Crops Farm Market at 7095 Henry Ave. and West Philly's Clark Park at 4300 Baltimore Ave. Fishtown's Riverwards Produce Market also will have them this year.
Feeling ambitious? You could try your luck at befriending a local forager — the guys and gals who supply area markets with the seasonal treat — and politely ask if they'll show you the way.
"Foragers are really secretive about their locations, so don't expect them to immediately give you directions," said Forsyth, who's been told there are trees in Wissahickon Valley Park; he's uncertain, though, of their exact location.
There's always the option to grow your own. As long as you have the green space, Forsyth says, cultivating the trees isn't too challenging.
"The trees already grow wildly in Pennsylvania and basically have no pest or disease problems, so it's pretty easy to get them going, surprisingly even in urban parts of Philadelphia," Forsyth said.
The Philadelphia Orchard Project will sell pawpaw trees at Awbury Arboretum's Harvest Festival on Oct. 13, and local garden centers like Collins Nursery in Glenside also have a few available. Additional nurseries may carry the trees in the spring, when the other fruit trees become available.
"You need at least two trees in order to stimulate cross pollination and produce any pawpaws," Forsyth said. "Within three or four years, you'll have your first fruit."
Pawpaw Ice Cream
Yields about one quart
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
6 egg yolks
¼ cup raw sugar
1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup of pawpaw fruit (from 2-3 pawpaws), peeled and seeded
Place egg yolks in a mixing bowl, and whisk together with sugar and salt. Continue stirring, slowly pouring in half of the dairy mixture, whisking, and then drizzling in the remainder. (Don't pour it in all at once or you will scramble the eggs.) Return the egg/dairy mixture to the pot over low heat; stir until the mixture coats a spoon. It should be just thick enough so that when you drag a finger through, it leaves a path between the two sides. Place in the refrigerator until chilled.
Mix pawpaw flesh into the ice cream base, and puree with an immersion blender; alternatively, place all ingredients in a regular blender and puree until smooth.
Freeze in your ice cream machine as directed.
— Chef Ari Miller
Don't own an ice cream maker? Find the pawpaw treat at Franklin Fountain, which is set to release the flavor sometime within the last week of September. Check Franklin Fountain's Instagram or Facebook to stay up-to-date on the exact timing.
To learn more
There are several regional opportunities to find the trees in the wild with a guide leading the way. This weekend, Sept. 22 and 23, the Backyard Fruit Growers group out of Lancaster County will host two walking tours for its members. Those interested in participating can learn more at byfg.org.
Farther north, in Branchburg, N.J., West Farm Nursery will host two, two-hour events (Sep. 29 and 30) featuring a discussion on how to grow pawpaws in a garden or farm, with opportunities to taste the fruit. Register at https://nofanj.org/event/pawpaw-tasting-and-farm-tour-with-dr-charlie-west-of-west-farm/.
Finally (and closest to home), Pennypack Park's environmental officer Peter Kurtz will guide a Wild Plant Sampling and Hike event on Oct. 6 with Meetup group Wild Foodies of Philly (meetup.com/Wild-Foodies-of-Philly). RSVP to the Meetup online to attend.