September 18, 2015
Back in 2010, Andrew Moore spent a couple of life-changing days in Ohio. This wasn’t a romantic weekend when he met the partner of his dreams or had an earth-shattering philosophical revelation. This was the weekend when Moore went to a festival that celebrates a curious fruit called the pawpaw.
"It was exciting just to see these things growing in the woods there! And then you immediately ask yourself, 'Why haven’t I heard of this thing before?'" he says.
The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to North America, and it’s also the only member of a family of tropical plants growing in our cold climate. For one month a year—September in western Pennsylvania—6-inch ovals ripen to yellow-green and produce a fruit that tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana. Thomas Jefferson grew them, and they’re rumored to have saved explorers Lewis and Clark from starvation. Yet, as Moore says, they’re largely unknown to most of us. Still, he’s finding that there are a growing number of pawpaw enthusiasts from the Florida panhandle to upstate New York that are determined to reconnect the pawpaw to the people.
"In every geographic region, in every little community, I find a pawpaw enthusiast who is sort of the pawpaw ambassador," he says.
Moore has just finished a book (Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) designed to introduce us to many of these ambassadors. He says he's determined to tell the story of the stewards of the pawpaw—people who have worked for years to popularize the fruit.
Moore is especially appreciative of Neal Peterson, the West Virginia plant scientist who’s spent more than 30 years selectively breeding the pawpaw; Jim Davis, a commercial grower in Maryland who’s figured out a way to ship the fragile fruit to chefs in New York; and Chris Chmiel, the organizer of the Ohio pawpaw festival where Moore was first introduced to the fruit.
So what is it that drives these pawpaw people?
"When I’ve traveled and talked to people, what I’ve found is people like that this tree is rooted in American history. They like that it’s been here longer than any people have been here. They like connecting to this history, as I do, as well. That’s why I’m interested in it," Moore says.
As he’s driving to check in on the three seedlings he’s planted on a baseball-field-turned-community-farm that’s just up the road from his house, Moore pulls over at a small garden center to see if they still have pawpaw seedlings for sale. It’s clear that, in the course of talking to pawpaw lovers, he’s developed his own reputation as Pittsburgh’s pawpaw ambassador.
In fact, he’s become what you might call Andy-Pawpaw-Seed. Although he lost the frozen fruit he preserved last season in a tragic case of freezer malfunction, Moore’s refrigerator is still packed full of pawpaw seeds, and over a dozen seedlings grow on a patch of concrete behind his house.
"More than likely I’ll just continue to plant seeds every year and collect more seeds and give them to friends and plant them here and there."
Above the farm is another patch of Moore’s pawpaw trees, all offshoots of the 30-foot giant that stands in the center of the patch. A week earlier, he hand-pollinated the flowers in hopes that they’d produce pawpaws. He reaches up through the leaves of the tree, looking for where he thinks a tiny fruit may be developing. Pushing away branches, there's nothing. Then, he finds a tiny fruit hanging on a branch.
"Ah! I found one!" Moore exclaims.
It's a humble start for what he hopes someday will be a mighty fruit.
Note: A version of this story originally ran on June 21, 2013 and was updated September 18, 2015 for the publication of Moore's book, Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit.