Neal Peterson was featured in the February/March edition of the online magazine, Garden and Gun.
Food & Drink
The Mad Scientist of Pawpaws
Largely the domain of foragers, the biggest edible fruit in the South has mostly been forgotten. A quietly obsessed Quaker from West Virginia has made it his life’s mission to change that.
Twenty-five Years ago, I was walking the woods along the Potomac not two miles from the White House with my foraging mentor, a cranky, gravel-voiced woman named Paula Smith. “It’s a weird tree, okay?” she called over her shoulder as we walked into the gloom of the woods. “The flowers are sorta liver colored and don’t smell too good. That’s ’cause they get pollinated by scavenger insects, blowflies and beetles. You really want to help them out, you hang some roadkill in the tree.”
I was suddenly less interested in finding and eating the largest edible fruit in North America, but I didn’t want to tell her that. We soon found a cluster of the spindly brown trees, but none that had fruit. “A lot of ’em don’t produce,” she said. “They need the right amount of water at the right time.” The next cluster—each stand of trees is often a single organism, she explained—had bunches of green fruit the size of baked potatoes. Smith told me to shake the tree. “But gently,” she barked. “Not like the friggin’ yuppies who come out here and break the trees.” I shook and two pawpaws thudded down, one glancing off the side of my head. I looked at her accusingly. “Oh yeah, that happens,” she said nonchalantly. “Wear a hat. And look up when you shake.”