Pawpaws Behind the Shopping Center

Look closely. Do you see them? The pawpaws are back. This native North American fruit grows in deciduous forests all through the eastern United States, even though hardly anyone knows about them. From those who do, I hear a lot of “oh, I remember that pawpaw song.” It’s a goofy old folk song. Myself, I don’t remember it, but it goes like this:

Pick up a pawpaw and put it in your pocket…

Right now I will tell you not to put a ripe pawpaw in your pocket. Also, most of the pawpaws you find on the ground are bruised and just a hair or two past ripe. There’s something cloying and bad-funky about them. A perfectly ripe pawpaw will fall off the tree, but you probably can’t be there to catch it when it does. The next best thing is to harvest the pawpaws that separate from the branch with no resistance. They yield to your nudge.

The pawpaws in the bag surprised me. I went to scout out a nearby spot rumored to have lots of fruits, and the rumor was true. Those suckers were ready, and when a pawpaw is ready, it will not wait. You have to pick it right then. So I did.

This is my pawpaw anniversary. I’d never tasted one until this time last year. It was purely an accident, just me walking in the woods and running across this goofy fruit a few friends had told me about. I wound up succumbing to a manic pawpaw state. It’s not just about fruit. It's about total immersion in one moment. Gathering pawpaws, I don’t think about what music to listen to or what I should make for dinner or the people I need to send follow-up emails. I just think about getting more pawpaws. Pawpaws are around for a few short weeks, and then they are gone. After that, most of the leaves have fallen from the trees, and it’s cold and the skies are grey and the grass turns brown and everything’s a giant bummer until late March. I feel like pawpaws are summer’s last hurrah.

Pawpaws are homely little fruits with a distinctive tropical flavor. A longtime sucker for misfits, I fell for them hard. Last year I decided I should write a pawpaw cookbook, which lends this pawpaw season an even greater sense of urgency. At times, I’ve wondered why I’m so compelled to write a pawpaw cookbook, when other, more normal people write cookbooks about gluten-free brownies or Paleo salads. And then I realize I’m the normal one.

These pawpaws came from the woods behind a shopping center I’ve always hated. There's a grocery store and a DMV and a laundromat, and past those a compact network of hiking and biking trails. The trees back there are crawling with pawpaws. At first you don’t notice them, but once you do, you spy them everywhere. It’s like earning a set of pawpaw goggles. I got all scratched up from rummaging through multiflora rose and poison ivy to get to the pawpaws. It’s prudent to wear pants, not shorts. Next time, I will. And the time after that. Having the fruit is only half the point. Getting it is the real treat.