The life and hard times of the pawpaw

pawpaw tree and birds
Paw paw, Asimina triloba with Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. Birds of America [double elephant folio edition], Audubon, J.Yellow-Billed CJ., (1826-1838) [J.J. Audubon]
If you were to set me loose in a forest and told me that I had to feed myself I wouldn’t know where to begin. Fortunately, Native Americans and early settlers were familiar with a unique fruit called the pawpaw which was an important food source in the late summer.

The pawpaw is the only temperate member of the tropical custard apple family not found in the tropics and it grows wild in 26 states in the U.S, from Louisiana to Ontario, Canada (I know – not a U.S. state) and from the Atlantic to as far west as Nebraska. It’s the largest edible fruit tree native to North America. They are quite hardy in snow and icy conditions and grow to about twelve feet with a slim tree trunk and branches with long, green leaves. The trees produce greenish/black fruit that ranges from three to six inches long.

So what’s all the fuss about? It’s got an amazing taste some describe as vanilla, banana, mango or even avocado. And… it gets better. It’s good for you too! It has high levels of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. It’s similar in fat content to an avocado.

And if you’re in the business of name calling – the pawpaw has been variously named a Hoosier banana, Indian banana, custard apple or a Quaker delight.

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Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
‘Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Come on boys, let’s go find her,
Come on boys, let’s go find her,
Come on boys, let’s go find her,
‘Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Picking up paw-paw, puttin’ ‘em in your pocket,
Picking up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in your pocket,
Picking up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in your pocket,
‘Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch. Lyrics. © The Library of Congress. Music Division.

Burying food as a method of preservation

Cabbage

One of the questions that’s been bothering me was how did our ancestors preserve their food? Our nice stainless steel refrigerators were not an option so what was the secret? I’m finding there are many secrets to food preservation, but the one that surprised me the most was just simply burying food to preserve it.

Burying food helps to protect it from light and oxygen. The soil should be dry and salty and you should dig deep enough to be below the frostline. The hole should preferably be in a dry, sheltered area. Fruits and root vegetables were the most common food products to be stored using this method. Cabbage (Rio Verde or Danish Ballhead buried upside down with roots intact) was also traditionally preserved this way during the Fall in northern climates and it can be dug up at anytime until the Spring.

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