September 2008 Issue
Party with the Pawpaw
A Southeast Ohio festival shines the spotlight on a local, yet exotic-tasting, fruit.
Ask an Ohioan if he or she has ever tried a pawpaw, and you’ll likely be met with a puzzled look, or a curious “What’s that?” Though pawpaw trees have thrived in Appalachian Ohio for thousands of years, they are one of the state’s most hidden — and tastiest — treasures.
Chris Chmiel, an organizer of the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, now in its 10th year, is on a mission to educate the public about North America’s largest edible native tree fruit, often referred to as the poor man’s banana. He has grown, picked and sold pawpaws on his Albany, Ohio, farm, Integration Acres, since 1996.
The festival, which takes place at Lake Snowden in Albany, near Athens, September 13 and 14 this year, typically draws around 5,000 visitors, Chmiel says. “We started [the festival] to educate people about pawpaws and have some fun,” he explains.
It’s a pawpaw extravaganza — there’s a pawpaw eating contest, a pawpaw cook-off, a best pawpaw competition, a pawpaw beer garden, cooking demonstrations, music, arts and crafts, educational activities and, of course, lots of pawpaw foods.
“For some reason, Ohio and pawpaws get along,” he says. “They’re pretty flexible, but they do need moisture, and they’re fly-pollinated, unlike most fruit trees people are familiar with.” The pawpaw is a relative of the custard apple, cherimoya and soursop fruits, though it is the only member of this tropical family that thrives outside the tropics.
Pawpaw trees produce maroon-colored flowers in the spring, and clusters of fruit— greenish-yellow on the outside, yellow-orange and custard-like on the inside — ripen in the fall, mainly from late August to mid-October. This short growing season, along with the fact that pawpaws are a fragile fruit that, once fully ripe, last only a few days at room temperature, makes it difficult to find them in supermarkets. They don’t travel well and are best served locally (though Chmiel routinely ships orders of pawpaws across the country).
It’s worth the effort to find them, though, because pawpaws pack a significant nutritional punch. “It’s a super fruit,” Chmiel says, loaded with vitamin C, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese, protein and several essential amino acids. In fact, because of its natural fat content, pawpaws make an excellent fat substitute for baking.
Chmiel farms pawpaws with semi-wild cultivation methods he developed and researched with the assistance of a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant. According to Chmiel, Integration Acres is the world’s largest pawpaw processor and supplier of pawpaw products (including pawpaw spiceberry jam, pawpaw green tomato relish and pawpaw popsicles). In addition to harvesting and selling his own pawpaws, he helps other growers and cultivators in southeast Ohio sell and cultivate the fruit.
Michelle Wasserman, food coordinator for Casa Nueva Restaurant in Athens, has incorporated pawpaws from Integration Acres into the Mexican restaurant’s fall menu for years, using them in pawpaw ice cream, salad dressings, barbecue sauce and even pawpaw blueberry pancakes. The fruit, she explains, tastes like a blend of mango, banana and vanilla. “It’s an acquired taste. What makes it appealing is that it is a tropical fruit, native to Ohio.”
Chef Scott Bradley of Zoe, in the Eclipse Company Town (a former coal-mining settlement near Athens), has used the fruit at his restaurant since it opened five years ago. Pawpaw cream pie and pawpaw crème brulée are among the restaurant’s popular desserts featuring the local fruit. “It does have a flavor that’s all its own,” he says. “We get requests for crème brulée in any form, but pawpaw is a particular favorite.”
Nearby, in Marietta, the Marietta Brewing Company makes a wildly popular Pawpaw Wheat Beer that is served year-round at Casa Nueva, and is a highlight of the Ohio Pawpaw Festival. “The pawpaw lends a tropical flavor to a beer that I haven’t been able to find in any other fruit,” explains Marietta Brewing Company brewmaster Kelly Sauber. The drink is made using one pound of pawpaws per gallon of wheat beer. Last year, the festival sold 15 kegs of the beer in a day and a half.
The festival, after all, is all about having a good time, with good food, drink, entertainment and company. “There’s a really strong Athens flavor,” Chmiel says. “We’re just a bunch of laid-back people.”
For more information on pawpaws and the Ohio Pawpaw Festival,visit www.ohiopawpawfest.com