This post was written by Sarah Peet, a Education Program Specialist in the Informal Learning Office.
What can your favorite fruit tell you about history? The early fall is my favorite time of year because it is pawpaw season. If you’re wondering what a pawpaw is, the Library of Congress has answers. In this post, I will explore the history of this fruit and dive into a recipe you can try at home.
The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to North America, found on trees in the mid-Atlantic region. The fruit itself resembles a bean, with a yellow, custard-like interior. I became interested in pawpaws during the pandemic while researching plants that would attract butterflies to my yard. Once I tried the fruit, I was hooked.
When I started at the Library of Congress, I learned that Americans of all backgrounds have appreciated the pawpaws. A conversation with colleagues at the American Folklife Center illustrated the connections between pawpaws and Native peoples. As Melanie Zeck and Meg Nicholas shared, several indigenous languages allude to the pawpaw. According to Zeck and Nicholas, the Algonquin, Haudenosaunee and Natchitoches people all ate the fruit. The latter group name translates to “pawpaw eater”—a sure sign of the fruit’s influence!
In English, the word “pawpaw” is derived from early European explorers who got the fruit mixed up with papayas, which are found in Florida and the Caribbean Islands. Pawpaw’s Latin name, Asimina triloba, is derived from “assimin,” an Algonquin word connected to pawpaws.
European explorers also wrote about pawpaws. In his “History of North Carolina”, John Lawson writes about his travels to North Carolina between 1700 and1701. In his journal, he describes the fruit’s look and taste, which makes me think of a hybrid of mango, banana, and custard.
A century later, the explorers Lewis and Clark wrote about encountering the fruit on their famous westward journey. In William Clark’s diary from September 18,, 1806, he wrote that although they were starting to run out of food–[they were] “entirely out of provisions Subsisting on poppaws” but “they can live very well on the pappaws.” The president who sent Lewis and Clark on that journey also enjoyed pawpaws so much that he grew them. Here you can see in Thomas Jefferson’s own handwriting “Papaw. Asimina Triloba”.
Pawpaws were beloved by everyday citizens, like a soldier from Illinois who included pawpaws in a list of wild fruits he subsisted on in his Civil War recollections (see image 132).
I mentioned how much pawpaws were important and beloved in the history of America, but they are still just as treasured today by people, like me, who are obsessed with them. This oral history, recorded by the American Folklife Center in the 1990s, attests to the special relationship Americans have with this fruit.
You may be wondering why pawpaws are unavailable in stores. As I learned from this book (see image 578), the fruit ripens so quickly that there isn’t enough time to transport them. This probably explains why I had a difficult time finding pawpaw recipes. However, my search on Chronicling America revealed many articles about pawpaw desserts, such as this hilarious 1921 article about townsfolk who believe they have been scammed with a pawpaw pie recipe.
Because I did read a letter in this 1906 newspaper substituting pawpaws for bananas in an ice cream recipe (see image 6), I thought I’d give it a go. I used this banana ice cream recipe as published in the 1922 book “How to Cook It”.
In my pawpaw version, I used:
- 1 pint cream
- 1 pint milk
- 6-10 ripe pawpaws, or whatever equals 2 cups*
- 1 1/3 cups of lemon juice
- 1 cup of sugar
- A pinch of salt
*Pawpaws ripen at different stages so you can freeze the pulp just in case your fruit doesn’t ripen at the same time.
Here are some tips I learned from trying the recipe:
To prepare the pulp, remove the skin from the ripe fruit. I found the easiest way to do that is to cut the pawpaw in half, scrape the pulp out with a serrated spoon and remove the seeds. This took a while, since pawpaws have many seeds. I differed from the author of the original newspaper article, who incorporated the seed into the ice cream. Be patient, there are a lot of seeds but you can save them to grow your own tree, that is what I do.
I also skipped the listed step of “forcing through a sieve,” because pawpaw pulp is already very soft. After I mixed all of the ingredients as is, no cooking necessary, I froze the mixture in a plastic container.
The ice cream tasted like a lemon-pawpaw sorbet to me—light and refreshing. In future versions, I might lessen the amount of lemon juice to draw out more of the pawpaw flavor.
I hope this has inspired you to go to a pawpaw festival or search for a pawpaw tree if you live on the east coast. And if not, you can always explore pawpaws some more in our collection.
Here are some additional links I found interesting in my research:
- A 1912 contest to see which child could find the best pawpaw
- A lovely sketch and description in a book published in 1892 (see image 578)
- A great article about pawpaws from 1921 (see image 7)
- An article about a list of edible plants growing in the wild
- An article about pawpaw butter during World War 1(see image 2)
- A folksong called “Paw Paw Patch”
- Two songs titled “Hoosier Bananas” and “The West Virginia Banana” hinting at the many nicknames for pawpaws