Family pawpaws a far cry from fruit of the same name

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By Georgia Green Stamper

I wanted to love pawpaws. The name enchanted me. One of the earliest nursery rhyme ditties I learned featured this indigenous fruit. “Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch, “ we’d sing, as we skipped in a circle holding hands.
At first, I thought we were singing about a patch of grandfathers, an image I loved then and still do. Imagine that – growing a whole field full of doting granddaddies like you raised tomatoes or tobacco! You see, I, along with my large clan of Green cousins, called our grandfather, “Pawpaw.” Lots of people I knew when I was child also had beloved “Pawpaws.” I’ve since come to realize this may be only a rural Kentucky thing because my friends from the north are puzzled when I talk about my Pawpaw. Even after I explain that it is a common name applied to grandfathers where I come from, they remain befuddled, as though I were translating ancient Sanskrit.
When I learned that Kentucky’s answer to bananas was also called a pawpaw, I couldn’t wait to eat one. I love bananas, and pawpaws grew free for the picking I was told. How could it get any better?  Unfortunately, the misguided pawpaw (it’s a tropical fruit that took a u-turn to non-tropical North America back when time began) is as hard to spot in season as a dodo bird. To paraphrase the lesson Alice learned about jam when she stepped through the looking glass, “The rule is, pawpaws tomorrow and pawpaws yesterday—but never pawpaws today.” The mischievous fruit is either under-ripe or over-ripe, and its elusive moment of perfection bursts forth at midnight under the first blood moon of . . . well, you get the idea.
Finally, a year or so after Ernie and I married, my sweet father-in-law carried in a hat full of “perfect” pawpaws from his Kentucky River farm for me to sample. He was a connoisseur of this native delicacy and declared it superior to a banana or a pear or maybe even your favorite pie, pick a flavor. He stood in their farmhouse kitchen, his hair still full and dark that day, his face younger looking and less wrinkled than mine is now, and extended this precious offering to me with his easy smile. His topaz eyes (why couldn’t my children have inherited those?) danced with anticipation as he waited for my reaction. In that moment I understood how much he wanted his pawpaws to impress – no, please me.
I bit into the misshapen sort-of-looks-like-a-pear fruit. It tasted like? Words fail me. Maybe a DEAD banana? Maybe a tasteless over-cooked squash? Maybe a vaguely sweet wet wad of paper a kid had chewed on? No, I take that last comparison back because I’ve since learned that goats refuse to eat pawpaws.
That was the first and last time I ever tasted a pawpaw, but that scene in the kitchen has lingered in my memory for a lifetime. Perhaps that’s why an interview with Chris Chmiel on NPR’s food blog, The Salt, caught my attention. Chris has planted his own pawpaw orchard near Athens in southern Ohio. Who knew you could plant pawpaw trees? I through there was a cosmic rule that they could only grow spontaneously in wild patches. He’s also founded a Pawpaw Festival since every self-respecting fruit must have its own. He allows, however, that the festival became more festive once he hit upon a way to make pawpaw beer.
A distant cousin of tropical fruits, the pawpaw inexplicably prefers to hang out with apple, pear, hickory nut, and walnut trees in non-tropical regions of America, like Appalachia, or the sort of place where a good river runs through it, like the Ohio or the  Mississippi. Full of protein and vitamins, the pawpaw supposedly sustained members of the Lewis and Clark expedition during a particularly lean stretch of their journey, and Thomas Jefferson once sent some to the ambassador of France. That gesture may explain the disdain the French still maintain for American cuisine.
However, even an eat-local cheerleader like Chmiel admits that it’s unlikely pawpaws will ever be sold in your local supermarket. It’s the old jam yesterday, jam tomorrow conundrum – pawpaws have only a brief, fleeting moment of desirability. You can mash them to make pawpaw bread or jelly, but then the concentrated fruit has a nasty little habit of causing intestinal distress in some folks, what Chmiel alludes to as “the poo-poo issue.” (Apparently, people don’t care about the “poo-poo issue” when they drink pawpaw beer.)
But back to my father-in-law. I loved him dearly, and I wanted to love his pawpaws too. I really did. But though I majored in theater in college and am inclined by temperament to be mindful of others’ feelings, I could not muster a “pawpaws are divine” look on my face on that long ago day. The best I could do was a polite verbal response. “Interesting,” I said, followed by the old fall-back, “certainly different.” Then I made a graceful exit to the bathroom in case I really did need to vomit. For the remainder of his life, we never mentioned pawpaws again. I loved him for that, for letting my divergent tastes go unchallenged, unremarked upon, in this, in all things.
Although I never ate another pawpaw, I did teach my children to call their paternal grandfather by that affectionate name. Lucky for them, he and his kind flourished in the uncultivated patches that spread, root sprout to root sprout, down yonder by the Kentucky River.

This essay originally appeared under the title “Indigenous” in Kudzu Literary Magazine, Spring 2016.