Pittsburgh resident Andy Moore was recently named one of three finalists for a James Beard Award in Writing and Literature for his first book, Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit. The pawpaw is an oblong fruit native to Eastern North America, with a custardy flesh and a taste that Moore describes as something of a hybrid of banana and mango.
How did America forget about the pawpaw?
Well, it’s a long story. But if I wanted to sum it up concisely, there’s a lot of food that we used to eat that was primarily found in the wild, or out in the woods, and we stopped eating almost all those things. And the pawpaw is one of those wild foods. We’ve eaten it for centuries. It was a food that Americans ate when we had access to wild patches of it, but we stopped going to those places for various reasons, and we’ve lost that connection with not just the pawpaw but many wild foods.
What’s the most interesting or compelling factoid that you came across in your research?
The easy way out would be to say that there are too many to name. One of the most intriguing things about it is that there are so many wild plants in America that you can eat, and what makes the pawpaw stand out, or what makes it worth paying extra attention to, is that it actually belongs to this tropical fruit family called the Annonaceae. This tropical fruit family includes these really incredible tropical fruits that are really important to tropical cultures, and those fruits include cherimoya, guanábana, soursop, sweetsop, custard apple, sugar apple . . . and the pawpaw is actually the only member of that rich family that is found in the temperate north. So it in many ways can be seen as a tropical fruit that grows in this temperate region, and it’s incredibly unique in that respect.
Does that mean Pittsburgh is in the native range for pawpaws? What’s the best way for people around here to try one?
Yes, Pittsburgh is in fact in the native range of the pawpaw species, and in some ways we’re in the northern end of that range of its natural distribution. They can be found in the wild, particularly if you go a little further south toward West Virginia or Maryland. The population increases around Ohiopyle and the Great Allegheny Passage—there are tens of thousands in that area. So if you were interested in going to look for wild fruit, you can certainly find trees in that area. I don’t know if you’ll be lucky enough to find fruit, but you can certainly find trees. If you’re looking for fruit, some people will occasionally bring them to farmers markets, if a farmer has trees on their property. Or you can make a short drive to the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, in September.
What was your reaction when you heard you were named a James Beard Award finalist?
I really didn’t think I was going to be nominated, so I couldn’t believe it. I was just as excited as you might imagine. Being nominated is such an honor, especially to be in such good company as I am. It’s kind of unreal. I actually saw a tweet that mentioned me. I figured it must be real if it’s on Twitter.
How many pawpaws do you think you ate in the process of writing this book?
Oh god, so many. I don’t know. That’s the other thing about the fruit. It is still somewhat elusive, so even though I spent five years working on the book, its still not that easy to come by. So every time I get my hands on the fruit it’s still a special experience, and I still relish all opportunities to eat pawpaws.
Has there been a resurgence of interest in pawpaws since the resurgence of your book?
Absolutely, and in many ways my book is riding a greater resurgence. If you look at our culture and our food, there’s a return to older American food ways, and our culture is looking to remember and revive some of these heirloom flavors, whether they are tomato varieties or bean varieties, or wild foods like ramps. There’s this larger resurgence and pawpaws are part of this bigger trend, which gives me hope that the revival will be a sustained revival.
You used to write for Pop City. Do you have any good stories from your time working with Tracy Certo and Jennifer Baron?
It was a lot of fun! I can’t remember if I brought any pawpaws to staff meetings or not. (Editor’s note: He did and we were grateful.)
More information on Andy Moore and his book can be found at Chelsea Green Publishing.