Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pawpaws to the People! Part 1

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting my friends, Adam Hughes and Sarah Harter, in Athens for the 11th Annual Pawpaw Festival, proletariatly entitled, "Pawpaws to the People!" I had a total blast and can't wait for next year's fest. Now if you're scratching your head, wondering what a pawpaw is, don't worry you're not alone. A pawpaw is a wholly unique fruit that is actually native to North America. When I say unique, I mean it's the only temperate species of the Annonaceae Family, known for the cherimoya. The pawpaw's flavor is totally tropical, mixing elements of papaya, mango, and banana custard. It's flesh (what you eat) is custardy in texture. The pawpaw is about 200 times more exciting than a pear or apple. As of two centuries ago, a chilled pawpaw was George Washington's favorite dessert. As of 2009, the pawpaw is Ohio's native fruit tree.

And for 11 years now, the folks of Athens, Ohio have been celebrating this revered fruit. To truly describe this great weekend, I must indulge in a little more than just the Festival and begin with Saturday's breakfast at my favorite restaurant, Casa Neuva, a totally crossover Mexican joint with plenty of options for the picky vegetarian or the snobby meateater. Casa Neuva has been a pioneer in the local food movement since 1985. The back of their menu is a list of some 30 odd farms from around the area where Casa sources their offerings. Anybody up here in Cleveland interested in local food movements should make the journey down. Heck, it's probably prime time for Casa Neuva to write a how-to/journal of their experience over the last 25 years. I'd buy it.

After my luscious breakfast of habanero/lemon pork with black beans, dippy eggs, a perfectly wheated tortilla, and coffee with Snowville Creamery 1/2 and 1/2, we visited the Athens Farmer's Market, which was a totally huge and hopping affair. I bought some sparklin' golden mid-sized Yukon Golds from a mostly-garlic organic farmer. Some of the cooler items at the market were the variegated egg-sized eggplants, the mini-white-Ichiban-lookin' eggplants, and the longbeans. The value-added items also really stood out, especially the bread stand with their Asiago bread in the shape of a plate-sized coral flame with its flame pieces meant to be broken off and eaten. The other major highlight of the market were all the farmers' softball-sized melons, which is the size I was able to grow this year. I thought it was just me or just me up here in the Northern latitudes.

Meanwhile, while breakfast was eaten and a Farmer's Market visited, the Sarahs both realized that they both had forgotten their suntan lotion! Which is a totally unlikely scenario that is prompting me to play the Mega Millions this week. So a trip back to the log cabin was warranted for sunblock. On the porch it occurred to me that even though I knew the folklore of the pawpaw and what a pawpaw fruit looked like, I didn't know what a pawpaw tree looked like in the wild, and I knew that Adam knew where some patches were on and around his property.

I asked if we all could take a little break prior to the Festival and check out some wild pawpaws first to get more acquainted with the species. My timing was perfect! The kids nodded off in the car and were napping! Down a hill, over a snapped oak and barbwire, we (being me, Adam, and my wife, Sarah, and not Adam's wife, Sarah-clarified here for the sake of child protective reasons) came to 20 foot by 20 foot pawpaw patch on a southerly facing hillside just loaded with delicious bean-pod lookin' fruit. Being the inexperienced pawpaw harvesters that we were complete without basket, stool, or ladder, we shook the ripened fruits from their homes out of our reach. We felled about five pounds this way stuffing our camo-ed short pockets, but we bruised the flesh considerably. I should note here that the easily bruised flesh (think more easier to bruise than a banana) is a major drawback to the commercial viability of the pawpaw industry. Nonetheless, this pawpaw patch and its pawpaws was like having "been to the mountain" and was an excellent primer for the Festival, which will be described in Part 2.

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