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    About a decade ago, a farmer walked into chef Anthony Lamas’ Bardstown Road restaurant, Seviche, with a pawpaw. Lamas has been hooked ever since. “I’m in love with them,” he says. “Once I had it, I was like, ‘Where have you been?’”

    Every year during pawpaw season (in Kentucky, typically end of August through September), he and his kitchen crew spend hours breaking down the green-skinned, mango-shaped fruits some call “Indiana bananas.” A strainer separates out the seeds and skin, and the saved flesh from nearly 400 pounds of pawpaws goes into airtight containers in the freezer. “My cuisine (is) flavor by heritage but sourced by locality,” Lamas says. “You see these Latin flavors but then you see sorghum, grits, pawpaws. What a perfect marriage to use this Southern ingredient in a way I would use a Latin tropical fruit.”

    The flesh is used for a variety of dishes at Seviche, including ice cream and a pawpaw beurre blanc. Pawpaw preserves provide the sweet, custardy topping to a pecan-crusted Brie served with crackers. Lamas chops slightly under-ripe pawpaws into a salad. A papaw-habañero sauce accompanies a halibut filet. Pawpaw flan is a creamy concoction so good that the recipe appears in his cookbook, Southern Heat. “Here’s this Latino chef introducing pawpaws to someone that’s been born and raised in Kentucky and Indiana,” Lamas says.

    Kentucky pawpaw Flan at Seviche.

    Pawpaws can be eaten raw or made into a variety of products, including bread and wine. Their taste has been described as that of a mango or pineapple crossed with a banana, and some claim certain varieties conjure the flavor of a piña colada. George Washington, historians tell us, snacked on chilled pawpaw flesh. Thomas Jefferson had pawpaw seeds shipped to him at Monticello. In 1806, Lewis and Clark survived on pawpaws when they ran out of food during their Northwest Passage expedition. The Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Athens, Ohio, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month with a pawpaw cook-off, pawpaw homebrew contest and pawpaw trivia.

    For a fruit that grows throughout the eastern United States and as far north as Michigan, it’s still relatively unknown. Sherri Crabtree, the co-investigator of horticulture at Kentucky State University’s pawpaw research program, says that’s likely due to a short shelf life and propensity for bruising, which makes pawpaws hard to ship. “When the fruit is ripe, it only lasts a couple of days at room temperature,” Crabtree says. (Lamas says they ripen quicker than an avocado, but that the fruit’s flesh freezes well.)

    The KSU program is the largest pawpaw-breeding program in the world, having planted more than 1,000 new seedlings this year alone. Each of the group’s pawpaws weighs an average of half a pound. “A lot of people think they don’t like pawpaws because they’ve only eaten (them as) wild fruit and they are kind of small,” Crabtree says. “The pawpaws we’re working with have larger fruit and better yields on the trees.”

    A stand of pawpaw trees is a feature of St. Peter Craven Community Garden off Lampton Street in Smoketown. Most years the pawpaws grown there win blue ribbons for University of Louisville urban planner Steve Sizemore (also a member of the band Appalatin) at the Kentucky State Fair.

    Country ham-wrapped scallops with pawpaw habañero butter at Seviche.

    The bones of a deer (we’ll get to that) nestle in the brush beneath a pawpaw sapling near Beargrass Creek, at the edge of the Louisville Llama Farm’s property line, not far from the Louisville Zoo. Like apple trees, wild pawpaw trees only sometimes produce fruit. If they do, the pawpaws will likely be small and bitter (due to a lack of cross-pollination). At the farm, sunspots that resemble mold speckle the pawpaw clusters, which are known as hands.

    Caroline Willette and Dale Hill planted their first planned pawpaw tree about 30 years ago in an open space on the farm. Now, the pawpaw stand’s 10 or so trees grow so close together that they form a shaded cove. This is where the married couple pluck ripe pawpaws to sell to Rainbow Blossom or to Lamas and other chefs. Hill and Willette purchased their farm in 2001. Though the pair had never operated a farm, they dove in headfirst, buying a herd of five llamas after llama trekking during a trip abroad. In addition to pawpaws, they’ve started a small orchard of apple and Asian pear trees and have planted around 400 grapevines for future wine production.

    Hill approaches a sapling and plucks off a long green leaf that wouldn’t look out of place on a trendy summer dress. “Just crush that between your hands,” he says. It smells like mint but also reminds me of pineapple. “Isn’t that nice?” he says. (Interesting fact: Pawpaw leaves are the exclusive diet of exotic zebra swallowtail butterflies.)

    In April, foul-smelling burgundy flowers open on the pawpaw trees, which are pollinated by flies and beetles. One common trick to attract flies to your pawpaw trees is to hang a deer carcass in the branches, hence the bones mentioned earlier.

    On this mid-August Friday, the fruit is still small, about the size of a lime and more oblong than round. These won’t be ripe until the beginning of September. “It’s so labor-intensive that the margins are really tiny if they’re there at all,” Hill says. “We kind of look at ourselves as pawpaw ambassadors more than anything else.”

    The pawpaw hands will hang on to the branch until they are ripe, when they will fall to the ground, a sure way to be bruised or eaten by insects. Unlike mangos or avocados, pawpaws remain the same color during the whole harvest season, so only a gentle squeeze can reveal their ripeness. “The fruit that has fallen — their shelf life is probably hours,” Willette says.

    Because pawpaws can’t be harvested mechanically, Hill and Willette spend the last few weeks of summer climbing into the trees with produce bags, gently picking entire hands, some weighing up to four pounds. Leaving an almost-ripe hand on the tree is a gamble — raccoons or even dogs may have eaten it by the next day.

    “Each tree will go through the first pawpaw ripening to the last pawpaw ripening in about a week or two at most,” Hill says. “So you’ve got to be ready when the trees are ready. Otherwise you end up with nothing.”

    This originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Tropical Homegrown." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar,

    Jennifer Kiefer's picture

    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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