I was first introduced to Andy Moore a few years ago when a mutual friend asked if I would be willing to host a dude on my couch who was passing through town on some kind of quest. Why, sure, I said. Andy was a great guest, and he told me all about the book he was writing: part kooky road trip travel narrative, part investigatory food writing, part meditation on entropy; the book-in-progress did truly seem like a hero’s journey. By the time I met him, Andy had spent years of his life driving around the country meeting farmers, attending strange ceremonies, reading arcane texts, all in the name of the pawpaw, a fruit I had never heard of. Most people hadn’t heard of it, Andy told me. Why this fruit? Andy aimed to unearth a lost root of botanical history that might tell us a good deal about American history and food practices today–he believed the pawpaw was the key to telling this story. Later that evening, he sliced a pawpaw into silky golden slivers and the fruit was shared between many friends at a bar in Kerrytown. I was happy to take him to Zingerman’s at dawn for a pawpaw gelato summit.
Now, Andy’s book, Pawpaw, In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, is proudly displayed on our bookshelves at Literati Bookstore. It’s also available at Argus Farmstop, where we and the good folks at Argus will be hosting Andy and his book next Friday evening. (More on that here.)
In anticipation of Andy’s visit, I spoke with the author about his book, and the work that brought him to its publication.
Tell me how a guy from Florida became interested in the forgotten fruit of the Midwest.
I moved to Pittsburgh, PA in 2009 and was introduced to the fruit after a trip to the nearby Ohio Pawpaw Festival. The festival grounds are surrounded by wild patches of pawpaws, and going into the woods, finding fruit in the trees, on the ground, was the experience that hooked me. As you mention, I’m a Florida boy, and I had just the year prior experienced my first winter. So to find this tropical tasting, mango-looking fruit growing wild in the northern woods blew my mind. How could this strange fruit be both wild and abundant, and I knew nothing about it? And then I set out to learn everything I could.
Can you describe the taste, appearance, fragrance, and texture of the pawpaw?
In terms of wild edibles, the pawpaw is the largest native fruit you’ll find in the American woods. A ripe pawpaw can be small, like an overstuffed peanut, or as big as a mango. And a green pawpaw does look quite similar to a mango. As it ripens, the skin will sometimes yellow, and darken to purple as it bruises. Its fragrance is floral, sweet, and tropical–and its flavor follows suit, ranging from mild and melon-like, to caramel-like and incredibly sweet, often described as a banana-mango mix with a custard-like texture..
You spent years of your life on a hero’s quest, driving around the country in search of the pawpaw, writing this book. What questions were you interested in answering?
Before my Ohio introduction to the fruit, I knew nothing about it. My friends didn’t know it, my family didn’t know it–even random people I met at parties, farmers’ markets, or in shopping lines knew nothing about pawpaws (you can see I began to talk about pawpaws non-stop). So I wanted to go out into Pawpaw Country and find people who might in fact might remember this fruit, whose families might have never stopped harvesting, growing, and in many cases, singing old folk songs about the pawpaw. I was delighted to find some wonderful people with just such stories.
I was also interested in finding other pawpaw obsessives–the plant breeders, the propagators, the chefs and neo-foragers–who had caught the pawpaw bug as deeply as I had. I wanted to find out what they had been doing with this otherwise neglected fruit, and learn what future they envisioned for the pawpaw, and what steps they had taken to making that vision a reality.
Finally, I wanted to find pawpaws, pure and simple. I enjoy hunting wild patches. I never tire of hiking the woods, whether it be in Arkansas, Michigan, or West Virginia, and finding pawpaws. I found them at historic sites in Virginia, in Missouri, in cities like Baltimore and Washington D.C.
What’s the wildest thing that happened to you on the road?
Driving through rural, southeast Missouri I heard a ticking noise coming from my tire. I pulled over to find a bullet lodged in my tire. I drove on, figuring to leave it there till I came across someone smarter about tires than I am, only to eventually come across an auto garage specializing in tires. One of the mechanics grabbed his pliers and told me to be prepared for a loud pop when he dislodged the bullet. But nothing happened. The tire was fine. I drove on about 15 hours and arrived home safely. I keep the bullet in my car (for good luck?), and the tire is still on the wheel.
Why do you think the pawpaw has been forgotten?
The pawpaw was forgotten and left behind when we stopped going to forests for food. In the last century, as our diets have become more industrialized, globalized, and homogenized, if a fruit or vegetable didn’t sit pretty on a grocery store shelf, we haven’t been interested in it. The whole story is a bit more nuanced and complicated than that, but that transition marked the decline of the pawpaw.
What can the pawpaw teach us about history, about food, and about people?
The pawpaw teaches us to slow down and pay attention, to notice the things living among us. Some Americans have remained familiar with pawpaws throughout the years, certainly, but for most of us it has been almost entirely forgotten and neglected. I have truly loved learning about pawpaws. But what other fascinating things are also in our woods, prairies, rivers and neighborhoods? The pawpaw is surely not the only neglected plant in our landscape, so it’s exciting to think about the potential of our native forests. And if the pawpaw teaches us to pay closer attention, I think that’s a good thing.
Advice for novice pawpaw farmers?
Pawpaws aren’t too difficult to grow once the trees are established. Protect young trees from direct light for the first year or two, and make sure they’re getting enough water. And then the best thing you can do is talk to other pawpaw growers via organizations like the North American Pawpaw Growers Association, the Michigan Nut Growers Association, North American Fruit Explorers, and so on.
Literati Bookstore is proud to collaborate with Argus Farmstop to bring Andrew Moore, and his book, to Ann Arbor. Andrew will read from PawPaw, In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, demonstrate the wonders of the fruit with real live pawpaws grown by Michigan farmers, and sign books, at Argus Farmstop next Friday night, at 7pm. Be there.