Learn about the tropical-tasting pawpaws fruit.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia — Neal Peterson’s dream is to take the humble tropical-tasting pawpaws fruit, with its delicate fruit 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.
Pawpaws have their place in American history, too, Peterson says. In the fall of 1810, as the Lewis & Clark expedition made its way back east, nuts and pawpaws helped them survive as rations ran low and game was scarce.
But can the fragile, seed-filled pawpaw, with a growing season of just four weeks, stake out a place in today's grab-and-go food culture? Peterson thinks so. He foresees an initial step happening at a college, where a donation of $50,000 or more could allow researchers to begin work on technology to put pawpaws before the masses.
"We need a machine to separate the pulp from the seeds and the skin," Peterson says. "You could then sell frozen pawpaw pulp so that you’re extending its shelf life. We've heard of interest from restaurants, if we could get pawpaw pulp to them frozen and ready for recipes."
Peterson sees the return of the pawpaw to America's culinary experience as no less than "rescuing part of American history."
"It's such a wonderful fruit," he says. "It should absolutely be as well-known as apples or pears. Raspberries are very delicate, too, and yet you find them available at every grocery store. We need to get pawpaws to the marketplace and to people's tables. It's just too good to let fade away."
For more information, visit these websites: Neal Peterson’s site at www.PetersonPawpaws.com; Kentucky State University's pawpaw research program at www.Pawpaw.KYSU.edu; and Slow Food USA at www.SlowFoodUSA.org.