In Search of the Exotic

Paw paw cluster on the tree
As the world becomes increasingly smaller, our ability and desire to enjoy foods that were once thought of as "out of season" or exotic are more times than not satisfied. Where we once had to wait for locally grown strawberries to ripen in June, we can now obtain the fruit all year long, courtesy of modern farming methods, shipment techniques and, in some cases, genetic engineering. This would appear, at first blush, a very positive development. I mean, after all, I like cantaloupe in January as much as I do in August. The seasonal swing no longer has meaning. Mangoes, papayas, pineapples and bananas are available despite the fact that they are grown thousands of miles from your local grocer.

We find delight in the available abundance, but perhaps, it has a dark side which we either choose to ignore or never consider. What we gain in variety and availability we also lose in shipping costs and in quality and taste. As small local farmers must compete with seasonal harvests against corporate agriculture and large chain stores, we also lose those small local farms as they become subdivisions and malls. We tend to accept the losses in exchange for the convenience without much conscious thought.

This fall, Ohio will enjoy one of its largest harvests of apples in many years. But, in an unfortunate reality, chances are excellent that the next apple you buy will have been grown in Washington, stored in nitrogen and shipped in refrigerated trucks to your local produce section. Unless you go to an orchard, there is little chance of ever enjoying my favorite, the black stamen winesap. Its shelf life is short, isn't nearly as perfect and pretty as a red delicious and its commercial acceptance is, as a result, limited. But, if taste is to be the measured, there is no contest whatever. Crisp, never mealy, juicy and tart, that ugly apple has it all over those grown for shelf life and appearance. While the under ripe, rock hard peaches trucked in from far flung growers will be available for months to come, the juicy freestones from Lorain county and Catawba are almost gone, not to reappear until next fall, if the orchard survives the pressures of urban sprawl.

A growing number of people in the food industry have recognized the benefits of sustainable agriculture and the importance of fostering local growers and farmers. And in a strange twist, the products brought to us by these local growers have become the new exotics. We seek out heirloom tomatoes for their intense flavor and in doing so help sustain the local farm that raises them. Special herbs, tender masculine
greens and miniature vegetables from Farmer Lee Jones of the Chef's Garden, Inc. are not only local, but grown in an environmentally conscious way, which becomes of particular concern when spinach from industrial farms has the additive e coli. The "wild" mushrooms from Killbuck Valley Mushrooms in Wayne County not only make a unique use of old barns, but offer delicacies that cause shitakes to pale in comparison. Products from local, hormone free, naturally fed livestock are found on the menus of many area finer restaurants. The North Union Farmer's Market and the Lakewood Observer Food Security Network are other examples of the recognition that locally grown is not only better for us, but better for our farms. And there are some fruits, despite all efforts to breed and cultivate for the industrial farms remain resistant. They are ONLY available where they are grown, not found in supermarkets, not amenable to shipping and as a consequence, not widely known and truly exotic. Dear readers, allow me to present to you the Paw Paw.

The Paw Paw, or Asimina Triloba, is a fruit indigenous to a wide area in the United States, from New Jersey to Nebraska, Michigan to Florida. Known also as a "Custard Apple", the Paw Paw grows wild in moist wooded areas where it thrives in diffused sunlight. The Paw Paw tree is really more of shrub, growing nine to thirty feet. The fruits are oblong, up to a foot in length, typically form in clusters and are green, turning to brown as they ripen in the fall. The fruit is high in protein, vitamin c, calcium, phosphorous and iron. The leaves are thought to have both anti-cancer and insecticide properties. And while its commercial unavailability may alone classify it as exotic, the real test is in the taste. The custard-like flesh is soft and creamy, with an intense pear-like flavor and overtones of pineapple and spice. While excellent cooked, simply scooping the raw flesh out of the skin is a preferred method for consumption. (For this reason, together with a real difficulty in obtaining the fruit, there is no recipe as part of this column). Southern Ohio is the home to the Ohio Paw Paw Growers Association, and the Kentucky State University is home to a Paw Paw research program aimed at increasing the commercial viability of the fruit.

But, besides a short shelf life of two or three days, the commercial use of the Paw Paw also suffers from the plant's own pollination problems. In order to bear fruit, there must be cross pollination and, unfortunately, the bees who would normally do the task simply have no affinity for the Paw Paw flower. It is, as a result, left to the growers to cross pollinate the plants, usually by means of a fine artist's paint brush. Some limited commercial success has been achieved by freezing the pureed flesh, but as of now, despite its presence in Ohio for millennia, scientists, growers and researchers have been unable to bend the Paw Paw to their will. Paw Paw seeds and plants are available from several on-line sources such as the Seedrack ( and Mellingers, Inc.

2310PP W South Range Rd, North Lima, OH 44452, (330) 549-9861. I am fortunate to have a friend just over the Rocky River who has undertaken the labors necessary to cultivate a Paw Paw patch. I won't share the name for fear that my source of this exotic delicacy will evaporate. But I would suggest to all those backyard gardeners that you have within your means the ability to grow an exotic fruit that puts the imported papayas, guavas and mangoes to shame. And all without refrigerated air shipments or nitrogen storage.

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Volume 2, Issue 20, Posted 10:10 AM, 09.22.06