Pawpaws for the Masses
Man dreams of a pawpaw on every plate.
Neal Peterson, of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, spends a lot of time in his pawpaw orchard in nearby Berryville, Virginia.
courtesy Neal Peterson/www.PetersonPawpaws.com
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia – Neal Peterson’s dream is to take the humble pawpaw, with its delicate, tropical-tasting flesh, and see it transformed into an ingredient available in every supermarket.
“The first time I tasted a pawpaw, it knocked my socks off,” says Peterson, a St. Albans, West Virginia, native who at the time was in graduate school studying plant genetics at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “My question was, why is this out here in the woods and not in the grocery store?”
While Peterson’s push for pawpaw popularity, which began shortly after his initial encounter with the fruit during a hike in Morgantown in 1976, hasn’t yet reached the mass market, it is bearing fruit.
He’s meeting with success in his efforts to breed the best possible pawpaw, one with fewer seeds and a firm flesh that could better handle shipping to consumers. And his decades-long work has begun to gain national attention.
Since 1981, Peterson has tended more than a dozen varieties of pawpaw trees collected from the wild as well as century-old orchards. These days, he regularly makes the trek from his home in Harpers Ferry, where he’s lived and worked as a real estate appraiser since 2001, to his pawpaw orchard in nearby Berryville, Virginia.
Recently, Peterson traveled to Manhattan, New York, to accept the Betsy Lydon Award from Slow Food USA, an honor given to a leader determined to make cherished traditional delicacies available to larger audiences.
Over the years, Slow Food USA has worked to bring attention to food and drinks from heirloom pears and homemade root beer to the Gilfeather turnip and Amish Deer Tongue lettuce.
There was a time when most everyone in the eastern United States ate and loved sweet, custardy pawpaws.
An autumn staple for Native Americans and early American settlers, the pawpaw eventually lent its name to creeks, hollows and whole towns, including Paw Paw, West Virginia, in bucolic Morgan County. Towns in Michigan, Indiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Kansas also keep Paw Paw on the map.