On a beautiful, early-fall afternoon a few years back, I sat on a hillside
overlooking an ancient oxbow in the flood plain of White River’s west fork
near the “town” of Plummer--really only a railroad crossing.
With my back against a little white oak tree, I sat with legs sprawled
comfortably, the little single-shot rifle across my lap. I was watching
a hickory tree for squirrels. There were lots of the outer shells of hickory
nuts on the ground beneath the tree, but few hard, inner nuts. That told
me squirrels were carrying nuts to spots closer to their winter dens and
burying them in the earth for winter food.
Incidentally, fox and gray squirrels bury nuts and acorns one at each
spot in the forest floor to be used later as food. Pineys (more correctly
red squirrels) cache their winter food supplies in hollow limbs and other
such places, including drain gutters of houses.
There was almost no wind stirring and the sun kept me warm and comfortable
. . . almost to the point of drowsiness. And while there was no immediate
squirrel action, my lethargic tendencies were interrupted occasionally
by a strange odor that was quite familiar. But always it wafted away so
quickly that my mind would not identify it.
After half an hour--maybe more--of trying to solve this riddle, the
solution became more important than the chances of bagging another squirrel
or two. This strange odor was tantalizingly familiar, but just as an off-the-cuff
speaker gropes futilely for just the right word, my memory bank of odors
Spurred by the determination of the title character in Rudyard
Kipling’s poem, “The Explorer,” I stood up, and, with the light
southern breeze in my face, waited for another sniff. When it came, I took
a few steps into the wind, then waited again.
I don’t know how long I played this game with the elements, but as I
moved into the wind this pleasant odor grew stronger. Finally, as I stood
on the brink of the little hill and looked down onto the deep-shaded banks
of the oxbow, I first noted a thick growth of saplings. Then the aroma
of ripe paw-paws pounded me square in the beezer. I could but smile at
the stalk by nose that I had made.
For many years I had stalked birds and animals by sight and sound--now
I had used the sense of smell to find my quarry--a beautiful little grove
of paw-paw “trees” which seldom get large enough to qualify as a tree.
They are more like a shrub.
The rest is history. I filled a plastic bag with the sickly-sweet yellow/black-splotched
fruit known to Southern Indiana folks as the Indiana Banana, but not without
first consuming one or two on the spot, spitting out (like a submachine
gun) the black, elongated, flat seeds in true country-boy fashion. It was
a thing I had not done for many years.
My booty for the day--not counting a couple of squirrels--included enough
pulp from the paw-paws I took home to make a gallon of wine (it turned
out clear and potent), and a pint of frozen pulp for use the following
New Year’s Day when daughter Patty and I would turn out a first-of-its-kind,
genuine, paw-paw cream pie, decorated with hickory and black walnut kernels.
Then, of course, the best ones were shared with numerous people who never
had dreamed that Mother Nature produced such a wild delight.
Paw-paws, like bananas, need to be right next to over-the-hill to be
at their gastronomic best. When the Pan-American Games were staged at Indianapolis
a few years back, some member of the press corps from neighboring countries
to the south were amazed at the way Hoosiers ate bananas. One reporter
from one of the banana republics told me that in his country bananas skins
were black before they were eaten. And so it is with paw-paws.
When the paw-paw still is clinging to branches of the saplings (the
paw-paw tree rarely gets more than two inches in diameter head high above
the ground), the pea-green color of the paw-paw skin, starts turning a
pale yellow as the cool nights of late summer come. And before they fall
of their own volition, splotches of black may be the dominant color. The
black splotching advances rapidly after the fruit falls to the forest floor,
and it is then that the paw-paw is at its mellow best. Paw-paws still are
very tasty when the leathery skin turns completely black, but at this time
the pulp, too, may be covered by a pithy coat of black or brown and the
pulp may taste fermented.
The best test in determining the ripeness of a paw-paw is the squeeze
test. If the outer surface gives freely when it is squeezed, the fruit
is ripe, at its best.
To salvage the pulp, I simply pull away the outer skin with a dull knife
and my thumb, then run the pulp through a colander (the pestle type is
my choice) to remove the seeds. In this operation, be gentle with the pestle
to avoid grinding the seeds into the pulp.
Paw-paw pulp freezes nicely in one or two-cup containers, but I do not
keep it frozen as long as I keep persimmon pulp. To avoid freezer burn,
I wrap containers tightly in newspaper after they are frozen.
Paw-paw trees tend to grow in groves, at low, damp points in woodlands
dominated by big hardwood trees. The paw-paw is really an under story bush
with the appearance of a tree. Just as paw-paw trees/bushes seldom get
larger than your wrist in diameter, neither do they often grow to heights
greater than 20 feet. However, on the day I sniffed out the paw-paw grove
mentioned above, I found one tree that I estimated to be five inches in
diameter and 35 to 40 feet tall.
This is why I believe that one of the characteristics of wild things--both
flora and fauna--lies in the fact that they reserve the right to act uncharacteristically.
Never say never about wild things.
It is easy to shake the fruit free of the limbs, but--for the obvious
reason--don’t look up while you are shaking.
Although the gastronomic qualities of the paw-paw are their real value
in the eyes of most members of the small army (make that platoon) of their
admirers, the flower of this bush/tree offers its own aesthetic value.
The paw-paw bloom--a little (half-inch in diameter) burgundy bell that
hangs strait down from the twigs--is one of the most beautiful wild flowers
you will find about the time morels are popping in the spring. Yet, few
ever view it. It is such a pity.
on the image above for larger view of paw-paw bloom.
to see a black and white photo of three Indiana Bananas.