The pawpaw king

The pawpaw king

A girl takes a picture of someone next to a pawpaw mascot.-

Visitors enjoy the 2016 Ohio Pawpaw Festival, which included a walking pawpaw tree character. (Photo by Chip Gross)

Chilled, it was President George Washington’s favorite dessert. Today, rural folk throughout the eastern U.S. hunt this delectable wild fruit each fall, keeping their favorite pawpaw patch as secret as they would their best spring morel mushroom woods.

Chris Chmiel first became interested in pawpaws while in college at Ohio University. “I like to hike, and I began noticing pawpaws on the ground in the woods, just rotting, going to waste,” he says.

Always the entrepreneur, Chmiel saw an opportunity. He wondered if he could gather pawpaws and somehow turn them into a business venture. So 20 years ago, he and his wife, Michelle Gorman, members of Buckeye Rural Electric Cooperative, purchased two small parcels of property on the Meigs-Athens County line and began a family farm they named Integration Acres.

“After a lot of trial and error, we are now the world’s largest pawpaw processor,” Chmiel says proudly. “We raise our own pawpaws, as well as buy them from others. We then turn them into everything from pawpaw salad dressings to pawpaw popsicles and more. Of course, we also sell fresh pawpaws seasonally.”

Chmiel’s favorite way of eating a pawpaw is the way most people enjoy them — fresh, uncooked, and not having been frozen. “The natural sugars in a pawpaw are very volatile,” Chmiel says, “so when you cook or freeze a pawpaw, the flavor changes.”

He describes the taste as creamy and “tropical.” Not surprising, as pawpaws are related to 2,100 tropical fruits. “They should be eaten when the inner fruit, not the skin, is a custard-like consistency, kind of like a soft banana,” he said.

As good and nutritious as pawpaws are, Chmiel cautions against picking and eating them directly off the tree. Rather, he suggests waiting for the fruit to drop naturally, then gathering it off the ground.

“When a pawpaw is still on the tree, unripe, the flesh of the fruit is white and hard, not yet sweet. Eating it then can make you nauseated,” he says. “Some people can even have an allergic reaction to eating pawpaws, just like with any other fruit. So make sure the pawpaw is soft and fruity-smelling before eating it.”

Pawpaw trees grow throughout Ohio, but they are more common in the southeastern Appalachian hill country. The trees are not large, reaching only about 35 feet in height. They can live some 40 years or more and begin producing their famous, fabulous fruit, North America’s largest native tree fruit, in 7 to 10 years.

The green fruits grow to a similar size and shape as a potato. An average pawpaw in Ohio is one-quarter to one-third of a pound, but a large one could weigh a pound and a half. The Buckeye State is blessed with excellent wild pawpaw genetics, resulting in great-tasting wild pawpaws. Some Native American tribes called September the moon of the pawpaws.

If you’d like to taste a pawpaw this fall, but aren’t quite sure how to go about finding one in the woods on your own, the next-best place to look is the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival held each September at Lake Snowden Park near Athens. Chmiel was instrumental in starting the event 19 years ago, and it has grown from a small affair at first into one of the largest in southeast Ohio, attracting nearly 7,000 people from across America over the three-day weekend.

W.H. “Chip” Gross, a member of Consolidated Electric Cooperative, is Ohio Cooperative Living’s outdoors editor. Send e-mail to whchipgross@gmail.com.