Not everyone knows what a pawpaw is. Until more recently, it has been discarded and forgotten, falling in and out of favor over the years. For some, it is a luscious dessert, a delightful treasure hiding in the woods. For others, it is, to say the least, an acquired taste (and texture). It is an enigma.

By Matthew Meduri 

Since 1916 I have succeeded in going far enough in breeding papaws to realize what an immense job lies ahead. At the same time the vision of what can be accomplished has widened in proportion and I am sure that the end will certainly justify the work and the waiting. The

possibilities are thrilling.

—George A. Zimmerman, Hybrids of the American Papaw, 1941


The enormous, eclectic, and ambrosial Ohio Pawpaw Festival is held every mid-September in the state’s southeast region, meaning the western edge of Appalachia, the heart of pawpaw country. Although Southeast Ohio has a surplus of the fruit, pawpaw farming and processing is hardly an industry of this region. One might view this terrain of lush forests in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains just north of the Ohio River as a place that doesn’t quite match the state’s national image of dull suburbs and flat farmland, cornfields stretching for miles. This region is known for its parks and forests, specifically the Hocking Hills State Park, a collection of dense woods, craggy caves, black hand sandstone, deep gorges, and trails, that brings in an upward of 5 million parkgoers each year, and Ohio University, a four-year public institution that enrolls over 28,000 students and is nestled in the spirited town of Athens. About nine miles southwest of Athens on U.S. Route 50 is Lake Snowden, which houses the festival every fall.

The Ohio Pawpaw Festival is a gastronomic heritage celebration whose theme is “Pawpaws to the People!” The festival’s founder Chris Chmiel organized the first pawpaw night with around 100 people in attendance to raise awareness and find a market to sell the many tons of ripening local, wild pawpaw. The 25th Annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival, although now massive in size, with approximately 10,000 attendees who traveled from around the country, even the world, and boasting various-tiered sponsors, is really no different. 2023 festival highlights include: musical performances by Amythyst Kiah and Son Little, the Pawpaw Cookoff, Pawpaw Eating Contest, Best (and Biggest) Pawpaw Contest, Best Pawpaw Art, Brewer’s Roundtable, activities for the kids, a 4-mile race and 1-mile fun run, and expert talks by agriculture scientists, permaculturists, chefs, farmers, foodies, and foragers. Food vendors line the edges of an old asphalt lot offering pawpaw variations, including but not limited to pawpaw mousse, pawpaw cotton candy, pawpaw shaved ice, pawpaw curry, pawpaw chili dogs, pawpaw spring rolls, pawpaw macarons, countless pawpaw sauces and dressings, and the crowd favorite pawpaw ice cream. For fresh fruit, Chmiel’s farm Integration Acres, the largest pawpaw processor in the country, offers fruit sourced from his orchard and network of foragers, or one can buy cultivated varieties from several other growers’ stands. The crown jewel of the festival is the beer tent, serving a variety of locally crafted pawpaw beers and even non-alcoholic options like pawpaw kombucha. There is themed merchandise, artwork, jewelry, toys, and plants for sale. Festivalgoers can even take selfies with the pawpaw mascot, a person in an enormous pawpaw costume. And if all this mention of pawpaw has you, the reader, wondering what exactly I’m talking about, you’re not alone.


Not everyone knows what a pawpaw is. Until more recently, it has been discarded and forgotten, falling in and out of favor over the years. For some, it is a luscious dessert, a delightful treasure hiding in the woods. For others, it is, to say the least, an acquired taste (and texture). It is an enigma. Taxonomically speaking, a pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to North America and the only temperate member of the tropical family Annonaceae, or the custard apple family. These fruits are characterized by their oblong shape, delicate greenish-yellow skin, a creamy custard-like flesh that varies from white to a deep orange, a central row or two of large black seeds, and the way they typically grow in clusters, like bananas. Of the accepted nine species, the relevant species is the common pawpaw, Asimina triloba. This fruit grows on a small, understory deciduous tree found all over the eastern part of the continent, more specifically, in the fertile soil of river valleys. Their native growing range extends from northern Florida to southern Ontario, Maryland to eastern Kansas, but farmers and hobbyists are increasingly pushing that range.


Pawpaws are good eating, or so the enthusiasts want us to believe. Until the mid 1800s, pawpaws were strictly a foraged food due to their woodland abundance. Indigenous people and enslaved Africans ate them as part of their seasonal diets, and the recorded anecdotes of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Daniel Boone describe subsisting on the native fruits during their journeys through the wilderness. Eventually, pawpaws, or custard apples as they were sometimes called, were sold at market. Though cultivated by Indigenous tribes like the Shawnee, the pawpaw was relegated to a wild folk food eaten by impoverished rural people, earning nicknames like the “poor man’s banana” and the “hillbilly banana.” 20th century horticulturalists eventually took an interest, noting the unique flavor and potential for cultivation.

The flavor of pawpaw is complex. At once, it can taste both tropical and floral, resembling any combination of mango, banana, pear, papaya, pineapple, and melon with notes of vanilla, caramel, and even spice. Wild pawpaws tend to have a bitter finish and a grainy texture, while cultivated varieties are sweeter and creamier. Regardless, these fruits embody the region’s terroir. Although the first taste of a perfectly ripe pawpaw can be life-altering, they are somewhat of a difficult fruit. Their skin is thin, leading them to bruise or blemish easily. They have a very short shelf life and can even taste slightly fermented when overripe.

Presently, pawpaws have become a delicacy, a superfood, and a talking point for enthusiasts. Cultivated varieties are bred for flavor, smaller seeds, larger fruit size, and texture. Nutritionally, a serving of pawpaw is similar to a serving of banana. They are a good source of potassium and several essential amino acids, containing significant amounts of vitamin C, magnesium, iron, manganese, riboflavin, niacin, and zinc.[ii] Adding pawpaw to one’s diet, though, is easier said than done given the lack of availability outside their limited season.

One of the main priorities of the Ohio Pawpaw Festival is to champion the fruit by educating the public about its wonders. Heading to the Pawpaw Tent, you can listen to Chris Chmiel talk about permaculture, farmers Justin Husher of Old Husher’s Indigenous Orchards and Susan Owen of The Lily Patch Farm provide their experience with and techniques for growing pawpaws and distribution, watch a pawpaw cooking demonstration by Chef Dave Rudie, and even take part in a pawpaw beer tasting at the Brewer’s Roundtable.

Understand, dear reader, the pawpaw served up around Lake Snowden’s grounds is less about the health of the festivalgoer and more about the novelty and exposure to the fruit. Sure, one could go to the fresh fruit stand, whose long line meanders for hundreds of feet, attendees waiting in anticipation for that creamy texture and saccharine taste, to hold the sticky fruit for the first time. For the uninitiated, the faint of heart, the ones who aren’t too keen on a pawpaw’s ick factor, they can try a “pawpaw version” of familiar cuisine. Add pawpaw salsa to your burrito. Lather a pulled pork sandwich with some pawpaw barbeque sauce. Sip on a pawpaw bubble tea or lemonade. But not everything is the best iteration. The pawpaw funnel cake and waffle have more of an essence than a flavor, and the pawpaw ketchup tastes like, well, ketchup.


To be fair, though, the Ohio Pawpaw Festival is a good time. It’s actually the best time, which is why it continues to draw so many people, both returning and first-time festivalgoers. I’ve attended the fest since 2015 and continue to bring my family every year since—aside from the 2020 cancellation due to the pandemic. This event introduced me, like countless others, to my first pawpaw, so, in a sense, it is central to my pawpaw fanatic conversion experience. Andrew Moore, author of Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, describes the event best: “imagine the love child of a tie-dyed jam fest and a 4-H exhibition at a county fair.” This quasi-hippie fest is compounded by their use of a solar-powered stage, reusable cups and beer glasses, compostable service ware, and their partnership with Zero Waste Event Productions who aims to fully divert festival waste from landfills by recycling and composting. When the crowds are staggered, the lines are short or moving quickly, and the temperatures linger in the low 80s, the festival is fun, educational, and delicious. One can hop in line to grab a beer, jump to different food vendors, then sit on a blanket near the lake’s shore, enjoy a meal, and listen to whatever bluegrass band is on stage without fuss. At its worst, the beer and food lines are hourlong affairs, the crowds are big and packed full of oblivious teenagers and townies wasting time on a Saturday afternoon, and the hot temperatures with little to no shade all make it feel more like a county fair in August sans the animals and the tractor pull. 2023’s festival had anticipated drawing over 10,000 people on Saturday alone, possibly the most this event has seen in its 25 years running. Perhaps, the event’s attraction was due in part to the gradual increase in pawpaw popularity through the renewed interest in foraging and locavore trends, various social media outlets, seasonal spotlights by local news, recent articles by National Geographic and BBC, or maybe people were just excited to finally get out and do something after years of pandemic isolation.


Pawpaws are a fall food. They are only harvested, or foraged, from late August through October. And picking pawpaws isn’t as simple as yanking the fruit from the tree and piling them into a basket. They’re delicate. The fruit only ripens on the branch and at different times, so the same tree can potentially possess fruit that is both underripe and overripe. The signs of ripening are nuanced: the skin usually stays green, though may shift to a light yellowish green, and they will feel slightly soft like a peach. Harvesters must give each fruit a gentle squeeze almost daily to determine which ones are ready and which will be ready. Despite their short shelf life of only a few days when fully ripe, they can be refrigerated for about a week. However, if they are picked just slightly underripe, they can last several weeks in refrigeration. If it’s any other season, you’re buying frozen pulp, which isn’t necessarily a bad option, but it won’t be the best experience.

Chef, writer, and fellow pawpaw fanatic Sara Bir offers over thirty recipes for how to prepare pawpaw in The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. To keep their bright, tropical flavor and avoid the slightly bitter backnote, one of Bir’s rules is to avoid heating pawpaw pulp. Her other rule is that it’s okay to heat pulp when the recipes are floury or very sweet. Quick breads, baked puddings, and cheesecakes can accentuate pawpaw’s caramel and vanilla notes, thereby hiding a multitude of sins. Finally, one might ask where can I find them? Mostly available at farmer’s markets and on a farm’s Facebook page or website, they may cost between $5 and $10 a pound. Specialty fruit websites like Earthy will charge an upward of $15-20 a pound plus shipping. If you’re willing to put on some bug spray and know where to look, you may be able to forage them for free. With its many varieties and culinary creations, a question arises: why aren’t they sold at the grocery store?


In 1905, horticulturalist James A. Little published a short treatise entitled The Pawpaw (Asimina Triloba): A Native Fruit of Great Excellence, part rant and part very brief introduction to the pawpaw. In 1916, on the heels of that publication, the American Genetic Association held a contest to find the best pawpaws. They offered $50 for the largest tree and $50 for the best fruit. Submission for the largest tree consisted of a glossy photo along with an informative statement about the tree, while the fruit would be judged on “the basis of the excellence of flavor, small number and size of seeds, but more particularly on the condition in which the fruits reach this office, taking into consideration the number of days they have been in transit.”[iii] Contestants sent six ripe fruits by parcel post to the office of the American Genetic Association in Washington D.C.

The association received seventy-five samples of fruit and reports of trees from 230 sites. Mrs. Frank Ketter from Ironton, Ohio had some of the largest and best tasting fruit, which arrived packed in excelsior and in perfect condition, earning her the award and making this an “extremely desirable variety.”[iv] The prizewinning Ketter was so desirable that famed botanist and plant explorer David Fairchild grew them at his home in Maryland. Six other fruit submissions stood out with the promise of propagation: two from Ohio, and one from Maryland, Kansas, Missouri, and Indiana. The aim of the contest was to locate the best varieties, propagate them, breed for superior qualities, and then distribute to farmers—an industry would be born! Unfortunately, nothing really happened until George A. Zimmerman took interest.

In 1923, a year after a New York Times article declared the pawpaw “the most neglected of American fruits,” Zimmerman began a breeding program, with the encouragement of David Fairchild, at his home in Piketown, Pennsylvania, after collecting all the known pawpaw varieties from various sources. He spent nearly two decades breeding pawpaws until his unexpected death in 1941. At that time, his widow donated a portion of his collection to Blandy Experimental Farm in Virginia, and even though others were growing pawpaws, nothing was being done with Zimmerman’s research or his trees.

In 1975, Neal Peterson tasted his first pawpaw. He was a master’s student studying plant genetics at West Virginia University and hiking a path along the Monongahela River in the university’s arboretum when he stumbled onto a pawpaw patch. The aroma of ripe fruit had alerted his senses. He picked up a fruit that lay on a bed of autumn leaves, split it in half, and took a bite. The experience was transcendental. He wondered why something this good had not yet been domesticated. Perhaps it was this very moment that provided him with the motivation to take on the task of bringing the best tasting pawpaws to people.

Before he began the largest and most ambitious scientific breeding program for pawpaws, he did an extensive literature search to find named cultivars and the people who had grown them. This not only took him on a journey through decades of research but also to the places where they had been grown, including Zimmerman’s old home in Pennsylvania and Fairchild’s in Maryland. There were no orchards on the properties—the Maryland Beltway had even paved over Fairchild’s trees. Peterson travelled to Blandy in Virginia to see what remained of Zimmerman’s collection. What he found were a row of five trees in the woods behind the headquarters. He returned in September to taste the fruit and collect seeds. The fruit was exceptional.

During the 1980s, after accepting a job as a USDA agricultural economist in Washington D.C., Peterson planted roughly 1500 seedlings at the University of Maryland Wye Research and Education Center and the university’s Western Maryland research center in Keedysville.[v] For the next several years, he devoted his weekends and vacations to his trees, volunteering friends to help tend to the orchards and taste the fruit. By 1996, Peterson had selected the eighteen best varieties from his fifteen hundred trees.


Before we go any further, the fact that Indigenous people were the first to cultivate pawpaws but many today have never tasted a pawpaw makes this a more complex subject, one that some people tend to ignore. Early woodland cultivation of pawpaws led to the superior genetic material used by 20th century experimental breeders. Tribes with settlements in river valleys foraged, grew, ate, and used pawpaws. It was a seasonal food staple. The Iroquois are even thought to be responsible for the pawpaw’s northernmost distribution in Ontario and western New York.

As the Shawnee moved into the Ohio River Valley and established permanent agricultural settlements, they grew and tended pawpaw orchards, collecting baskets upon baskets of fruit every autumn. The Shawnee word or phrase for September is ha’siminikiisfwa, which literally means pawpaw moon.[vi] They harvested pawpaws all month. When I think about the best pawpaws from the 1916 contest, like the prizewinning Ketter, they are, undoubtedly, genetic descendants of the Shawnee pawpaws.

But the Indian Removal Act of 1830 robbed Indigenous peoples, like the Shawnee, of their land, traditional food systems, and many of their lives. Forced to leave their homes in the lush forests and fertile land of river valleys and relocate to the varied terrain of Oklahoma, just outside the pawpaw’s range, tribes replaced old foodways for new ones. People like writer, professor, and enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation Devon Mihesuah and Chef Sean Sherman, co-founder of the Sioux Chef and Owamni and an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, have been advocating, educating, and providing access to Indigenous food sovereignty through their various programs. Mihesuah manages the American Indian Health and Diet Project through University of Kansas with the goal of recovering Indigenous peoples’ health, and Sherman founded the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems in Minneapolis that is dedicated to addressing the economic and health crises affecting Indigenous communities by re-establishing traditional foodways. While Mihesuah encourages growing pawpaw to reintroduce this food back into Tribal diets, Sherman pushes for using and cooking with Indigenous ingredients.

The Osage Nation in Pawhuska, Oklahoma established the farm Harvest Land during the pandemic, creating an infrastructure to grow and provide greater access to healthy and fresh food for the tribe and community. Using CARES Act funds, they built a 40,000 square foot greenhouse; a 44,000 square foot program building that contains an aquaponics system, a food processing area, and a water lab; and established an orchard that contains fruit and nut trees, including many pawpaw trees. The farm is a significant development in tribal food sovereignty efforts, reproducing traditional foodways, and eventually generating income. Lastly, the College of the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma recently received a grant to research the potential for growing two traditional Mvskoke foods: orko and cvse, or pawpaw and pumpkin, respectively. This program intends to help students identify the best techniques for growing pawpaw and pumpkin at scale, research the dietary and nutritional significance of each plant, and develop traditional, nutritious food recipes in order to advance aspiring farmers and strengthen food sovereignty. For many Indigenous people, the pawpaw is bittersweet: it represents lost food systems from colonization, but it also represents the hope to revive traditional foodways by way of traditional Indigenous knowledge.


In their native range, pawpaws were an abundant understory tree, but overdevelopment and urbanization have reduced their growth. Justin Husher, a farmer living in Lakewood, Ohio, uses his urban surroundings to grow native plants that once thrived on this land. I first met him, though not formally, when he spoke at the 2018 Ohio Pawpaw Festival. Dressed in cargo shorts, thick rimmed glasses, and a t-shirt that read “Pawpaws to the People,” this short, bearded guy stood behind a folding table, microphone in hand, and spoke with an easygoing matter-of-factness—that sort of Gen X prosody—about the particulars of urban agriculture. The presentation catalogued his journey of growing pawpaws in vacant city lots. With a degree in botany from Miami University of Ohio and an MBA from Cleveland State University, Husher’s entrepreneurial growing efforts began with mushrooms in the 90s and later shifted to heirloom tomatoes and other specialty produce that he grew on a sizeable lot on the west side of Cleveland as part of the city’s campaign to “Re-Imagine Cleveland.” When he was unable to purchase the land he had cultivated for years, Husher looked elsewhere to continue farming. In comes Lakewood who welcomed his vision with open arms via the Cuyahoga Land Bank, and Husher purchased two 4800 square foot lots in Lakewood’s Birdtown neighborhood in 2014.

Given the condition of the soil on most city plots, it wasn’t as easy as planting a few rows of trees and watching them grow. After soiling testing, he spent some time adding a ton of organic matter and getting the pH right. Then, he planted about one hundred grafted trees of different varieties between the two lots, and he waited and tended. In 2018, he got his first yield and as of today his urban orchards produce around a thousand pounds of fruit per season. Husher’s approach to farming is unique. As a self-proclaimed imperfectionist, he doesn’t like to overthink. Of course, he has the knowledge, experience, and does his research, but he isn’t afraid to try new techniques, take risks, or as he says, “go with his gut.” He practices dense planting, drip irrigation, woodchip mulching, and organic fertilizers.

Back in 2020, Husher became burnt out by his corporate job, and his wife wanted to return to the workforce after spending years as a stay-at-home mom and part-time yoga instructor. So, they bought a farm. It has always been his dream to be a full-time farmer, and the pandemic proved the right time to make the move. He had hoped to get land in a more urban setting, but when that didn’t seem feasible, he found twenty acres in rural Lorain County just north of Oberlin about 35 minutes west of Cleveland.

I visited Old Husher’s Indigenous Orchards (OHIO?!) on a chilly day in early April 2023 to offer some free labor in exchange for a chat. A recent windstorm caused damage to his high tunnel and some landscaping fabric. He greets me in coveralls, and we begin to shovel mixed soil into five-gallon buckets and walk them two at a time to fill in pits of dead branches next to each pawpaw tree and then cover that with woodchips. This “pit and mound” technique should add carbon and fungi directly to the soil. We talk about what he’s growing on the property and the challenges of upscaling. Like the urban orchards, the farm specializes in native North American fruits with pawpaws as the focus. Others include American persimmon, elderberry, and aronia. He also has figs in the high tunnel, Chinese chestnuts, northern ripening pecans, and shellbark hickory. Currently, there are 300 pawpaw trees planted, but Husher hopes to eventually have somewhere between 1200 to 1500 trees.

After filling the pits, we add staples to the bulging landscaping fabric that lays in 300-foot sections. The wind picks up, it begins to sleet, and we head inside for some French pressed coffee and Piroulines. Northeast Ohio weather is unpredictable in early spring: one day it might be 65 degrees and sunny and the next is 28 degrees and snowing. After Husher sheds the farm clothes, we sit at his vintage mid-century modern Formica table and talk shop.

We talk about the pawpaw industry, if we can even call it that since commercial growers are few and USDA data doesn’t reflect what’s being grown, sold, shipped, consumed, etc. As an insider, he would know. I ask if we’ll ever see a pawpaw farmers’ cooperative? He says there’s nothing like it yet, but maybe. Pawpaw growers tend to be reticent about their growing and processing techniques and extremely protective of their distribution systems, especially since there is no existing supply chain, only increasing popularity and demand. There’s a lot of personal investment as an independent farmer, in addition to unpredictable growing conditions, pests, and low success rates—even with government incentives, a single bad season could bankrupt you. I ask the quintessential question about pawpaw commercialization: will we ever see them on the store shelf? It’s unlikely we’ll see them at a supermarket like Walmart, he says, but possibly at local grocers with a robust local produce section. I ask him a more pointed question: what is the endgame for Old Husher’s Indigenous Orchards? Husher already successfully markets and distributes pawpaws from the urban orchards. He posts each day’s yield on Facebook and sells out by the evening. He’s partnered with the company Foraged who takes care of selling and delivery on their website. His orchard tours and tastings sell out. On a small scale, he’s doing just fine. On a large scale, Husher’s goals are ambitious: he wants to be one of the largest pawpaw operations in the country with a commercial kitchen for processing and packaging and finally establish a U.S. pawpaw industry. But with an embryonic industry, this dream seems far away.


In an interview with Jessamine Starr, host of Whetstone Radio’s podcast Fruit Love Letters, Neal Peterson compares the current pawpaw industry to the blueberry industry of the 1920s: superior varieties have been bred and are on the market, farmers are adding to or planting new orchards every year, and public interest is growing. To those unfamiliar with this piece of American agricultural history, the blueberry was only domesticated a little over 100 years ago yet is second in berry popularity to the strawberry. At one time, blueberries were solely a wild foraged fruit until Frederick Coville, a scientist with the USDA, discovered that blueberries require acidic soil, in addition to cross-pollination for a better yield and a certain amount of chilling to flower and fruit; he even developed methods of propagating still in use today.[vii] He published his findings in Experiments in Blueberry Culture in 1910. Elizabeth White read the book and invited Coville to her family’s New Jersey cranberry farm, and they began breeding and propagating blueberries, collecting the best wild plants from the local Pine Barrens residents. Once the pair had their best varieties, they sold them at market in 1916. White then developed the market for both blueberry bushes and fruit, shipping them across the country. Once farmers established their fields, she helped organize the first blueberry growers’ cooperative.

Perhaps Neal Peterson is correct about the progress made with the pawpaw. He dedicated most of his life to breeding some of the best pawpaw cultivars the world has seen: a flavorful, sweet creaminess without the bitter note, fewer and smaller seeds, and large fruit that can weigh over a pound. His seven trademarked trees are sold at nurseries in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Some universities have even established other pawpaw research programs. Kentucky State University began a full-time research program in the 1990s with efforts directed at improving propagation methods, developing orchard management, conducting regional variety trials, understanding fruit ripening and storage techniques, and germplasm collection. KSU released three trademarked varieties that are fast and heavy producers with medium to large fruit, smaller seeds, and sweeter, creamier flesh with different flavor notes. There are other universities like Purdue, Cornell, University of Missouri, and The Ohio State University that have planted orchards, conduct various types of research, and assist the public with growing techniques. Ohio State was recently awarded $249,846 from the North Central Sustainable Agriculture and Education (NCR-SARE) grants program to develop and promote woodland pawpaw production to improve fruit yield and quality. Though this project seems beneficial, resembling Indigenous agricultural practices, research efforts might be better served to focus on the issues that hinder availability: shelf life and shippability.

During the first wave of the pawpaw revival after Peterson had released his trademarked, patented cultivars, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awarded a $200,000 grant to Bevo Agro, now Bevo Farms, and the University of British Columbia to develop a new pawpaw cultivar in 2012.[viii] The partnership’s goal was to breed both a seedless and a slow-ripening pawpaw, changing the trajectory of commercialization and allowing for easier shipment and wider distribution. However, this proved too good to be true as the project was ill-conceived, poorly planned, and resulted in little to no data and no new cultivars. Breeding new varieties takes patience, replication, and time. It’s not clear how close researchers and breeders are to developing a pawpaw with a longer shelf life or thicker skin, if that’s even possible, so the next best thing would be to figure out how to prolong its shelf life postharvest. Enter food scientists.

Robert Brannan, a food scientist at Ohio University, has made a career of studying the postharvest pawpaw. He’s researched consumer reaction to flavor and preference for different varieties. He’s measured its antioxidant content and developed a more accurate set of nutritional information for a serving size of pawpaw intended to be added to the USDA’s FoodData Central. Some of his most challenging work to date concerns fruit browning and cell wall breakdown, or softening. Polyphenol oxidase, the active enzyme responsible for skin bruising or that gives the flesh of apples, avocadoes, and pawpaws their mucky appearance, has been an important focus of his work. The enzyme can be inhibited with the use of heat, citric or ascorbic acid, and high pressure. I’m old enough to remember a time without bright green guacamole in the produce section, but thanks to high pressure processing we can enjoy a convenient tub of fresh guac. When Brannan used high pressure processing on pawpaw pulp, it delayed the browning but, unfortunately, didn’t inactivate the enzyme.

Unless demand increases exponentially, a fresh produce section pawpaw seems unlikely. So then, what would it take to establish a commercial pawpaw industry? Is it one thing? Is it many? Would the pawpaw need some billionaire backing like the pomegranate had with Stewart and Lynda Resnick? Could its superfood status launch it as a health and flavor additive much like the açai berry? Frozen pulp is much more accessible. Would the pawpaw need a rebranding or an elite marketing strategy like what Frieda Caplan did with the kiwifruit née Chinese gooseberry? Could enough growers with orchards create a cooperative like Ocean Spray and ignite an industry? With mounting public interest and current growers selling out earlier each year, an industry might be close. However, mass market appeal doesn’t yet exist. According to Brannan, we want genetic diversity and variety in our food as opposed to a monoculture, but farmers, commercial sellers, and even food scientists are looking for the Red Delicious of pawpaw. “What makes a pawpaw good is not the presence of those generally tropical flavors—those are there all of the time,” says Brannan. “It’s the absence of the negative things.” To have mass market appeal, a single variety pawpaw with say a thicker skin, longer shelf life, firmer flesh, and fewer and smaller seeds would undoubtedly transform this beloved seasonal treasure into a cash crop commodity. Many, including Neal Peterson, believe the pawpaw is immune to that kind of corporatization, but if the pawpaw were to become a viable product, then nothing could really stop Big Ag from swooping in and sticking a single variety pawpaw in a spot next to the other single variety, mass marketed produce at the supermarket—think Navel oranges, Cavendish bananas, Tommy Atkins mangoes, and Haas avocadoes. Lest we forget the declining popularity (and taste) of the once desirable and “perfect” Red Delicious apple almost collapsed the apple industry. Is a single variety pawpaw with mass market appeal the goal of this slow race to commercialization or is the pawpaw destined to remain a niche, small-scale delight only available at farmer’s markets? And is that such a bad thing?

For now, at the festival, the pawpaw will have its seasonal celebration with its many varieties, culinary iterations, mercantile creations, and glasses of beer. Serving as one of the greatest marketing tools thus far, the Ohio Pawpaw Festival has had the widest reach for bringing the North American pawpaw to the people. This experience has been so effective that it’s inspired others to organize seasonal pawpaw festivals all over the country. Building an industry takes collaboration, and this grassroots enthusiasm may be exactly what the pawpaw needs to lay a foundation for a sustainable, commercial industry that supports independent farmers, embraces varieties, and offers consumers the necessary information and techniques for effective consumption and appreciation. Then maybe we can keep the pawpaw from becoming another forgotten food trend.

Matthew Meduri is a writer and educator living in the Midwest and the author of the novel Collegiate Gothic forthcoming from Bordighera Press. His writing has appeared in Catamaran, Gastronomica, Permafrost, Story, and two anthologies and was twice listed as distinguished in Best American Food Writing. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) consortium and is the recipient of a 2022 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.