by David Cecelski
Today I planted paw paw trees by the old spring in our back woods. I have wanted a paw paw since I first read about them in John Lawson’s New Voyage to Carolina when I was in college.Lawson lived among the Tuscarora and the coastal Algonquians here in North Carolina 300 years ago. He was a sharp observer of their society and of natural history. He wrote that “the papau… bears an apple about the bigness of a hen’s egg, yellow, soft, and as sweet as anything can well be.”
Paw paws were found in local forests, but the Indians also cultivated them for their fruit. “They make rare puddings of this fruit,” Lawson said.
Though their flavor is often compared to a mix of banana, pineapple, and mango, paw paws are very fragile and quick to rot, not at all good for shipping. They haven’t been cultivated on a wide scale here since the Tuscarora War and the Cherokee Removal. I’ve never seen them in a grocery store or at a farmers market. For a long time, clusters of paw paw trees marked the sites of old Indian villages, but now they’re mostly gone, too.
Fortunately, especially in the Appalachians, paw paws continue to be grown at least occasionally. Old timers still put them into pies, custards, breads, and puddings. The tree also attracts at least one welcome visitor. It’s the only home for the larval stage of the zebra swallowtail, a lovely butterfly.
I found my little paw paw saplings at the North CarolinaBotanical Garden in Chapel Hill. As part of the Botanical Garden’s commitment to the state’s indigenous plants, the horticulturalists cultivate a variety of native herbs, shrubs, and trees, including paw paws. My little guys look pretty spindly now and I know that they have a long way to go before I get any fruit, but I’m already dreaming of paw paw pudding.
Here’s a recipe for paw paw pudding that I found in Mark Sohn’s Appalachian cookbook, Mountain Country Cooking. For more recipes, see the web site for Kentucky StateUniversity’s paw paw research program,www.pawpaw.kysu.edu.
- 2 c. sugar
- 1½ c. bread flour
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- ½ tsp. cinnamon
- 3 eggs
- 2 c. pawpaw pulp
- 1½ c. milk
- ½ c. melted butter
Preheat the oven to 350o F, and grease a 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. In the center of a large mixing bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: sugar, flour, baking powder, and cinnamon. Into a well in the center of the dry ingredients, add and whisk the eggs. Whisk until fully mixed. Whisk and mix in the other wet ingredients: pulp, milk, and butter. Pour and scrape the batter into the baking dish and bake 50 minutes. To test for doneness, slide a toothpick into the center of the pudding, and it should come out clean. Like custard, if you jiggle the pan, the center should be set.
Serving: Cut the pudding into squares, and serve it with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, hard sauce, or crème anglaise.