Native Eats: The Paw paw

A friend at work who hails from Indiana and Ohio (where these things are a bigger deal) spotted a paw paw tree on the way out to Cooper’s Landing over the weekend. He stopped the car and knocked one of the little fruits out a high branch, catching it before it hit the ground. He brought it into work for us to try today.

To me, it looked a little like a small, ovular pear. Or like a huge peapod. It was soft, clearly ripe and peeled effortlessly. Inside was a creamy white mass with a few black seeds. My friend sliced a bit of the flesh and handed it to me. It was lightly squishy, similar to a ripe banana. It’s taste reminded me more of mango but it was clearly distinct. Delicious. For something growing on a tree in Boone County it was remarkably tropical. I couldn’t help but think, “Mmm, paw paw coladas.”

Why is it that I’ve never had one of these before? The answer has to do with its poor reaction to transport, the tree’s deep taproot (making transplanting difficult) and the fact that its flowers are self-incompatible (which, Wikipedia told me, means two different varieties of the plant are required to achieve pollination). We’re also close to the westernmost reach of the plant.

Still, this seems like a pretty poor excuse. The paw paw is a big deal in Ohio and Indiana, and seems at least relatively widespread in Missouri. It has a long history in the state as well. From a camp where the Chariton River meets the Missouri (near Keytesville, about ten miles northwest of Glasgow) Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition wrote:

we saw very little appearance of deer, Saw one bear at a distance and 3 turkeys only to day. our party entirely out of provisions Subsisting on poppaws. we divide the buiskit which amount to nearly one buisket per man, this in addition to the poppaws is to last is down to the Settlement’s which is 150 miles. the party appear perfectly contented and tell us that they can live very well on the pappaws.

Five days later the Corps of Discovery would lumber, after an absence of nearly three years, into St. Louis, their journey completed. And what carried them those remaining days was an underappreciated, tropical-tasting fruit called the paw paw.

And now you know…the rest of the story.

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Author: Scott

I am a married father of two. I graduated from Rock Bridge High School and then Mizzou before spending six years in the Washington, D.C. area. We returned to Columbia, Missouri in 2006.

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