National Pawpaw Day, held every third Thursday in September, celebrates the tropical-looking fruit native to North America which tastes like a cross between mango, banana, and sometimes other fruits. With over 60 varieties and a unique, creamy texture, it’s a wonder that more people don’t know about the pawpaw.
Also known as the Kentucky Banana and Hillbilly mango, the pawpaw grows all across the South and is the largest fruit native to the United States. Although we don’t see it on store shelves much today, the pawpaw was an important part of traditional Native American diets and is used for various purposes today.
History of National Pawpaw Day
Before Europeans arrived in North America, Native American groups from Florida to the Midwest used the pawpaw in a myriad of ways. The Iroquois made small cakes or fruit jerky from it, and other groups like the Osage and Algonquin also included it in their diets. The versatile fruit can be eaten raw or cooked into breads and sweets. It can grow to about 6 inches and has a uniquely custard-like, creamy texture, strong fragrance, and notably sweet flavor reminiscent of mangos and bananas.
The Spanish became aware of it during Hernando de Soto’s 1540 expedition. A favorite of the Founding Fathers, it was supposedly George Washington’s favorite dessert and cultivated by Thomas Jefferson, who shipped pawpaw seeds to France during his time there. Later on, Lewis and Clark wrote of subsisting on pawpaws when they ran out of other food while on their expedition charting the American West. During the Great Depression, the pawpaw became a popular substitute for other, more scarce fruit, leading to a new nickname, the “poor man’s banana.”
After the end of World War II, the introduction of other exotic fruits led to a decline in popularity for the pawpaw, whose short shelf life makes it difficult to store in large supermarkets. Today, it can be found mostly in farmers’ markets, and is still prized for its unusual texture and sweetness. Each September, Ohioans celebrate the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, where attendees can sample different pawpaw preparations, enter contests and cookoffs, and celebrate this uniquely American fruit.
While many people have never tasted the sweet, custard-like fruit, National Pawpaw Day sets out to change that. This seasonal fruit enjoys a peak harvest time from late August through the first frost. Given that markets and festivals across the country offer samples, there’s ample opportunity to savor the taste of pawpaw!
National Pawpaw Day timeline
Founded by Kentucky State University, National Pawpaw Day celebrates and raises awareness of this tasty and unique fruit and promotes research and cultivation.
During the Great Depression, when other fruit became scarce and expensive, the pawpaw stood in for more tropical imports like bananas.
During a particularly lean time on their expedition to map the American West, Lewis and Clark subsisted on pawpaws when they ran out of almost everything else.
The Spanish discovered pawpaws during Hernando de Soto's Mississippi expedition, when an expedition member noticed Indigenous people cultivating it.
National Pawpaw Day FAQs
When should I eat pawpaw?
It depends on the climate and area. Usually, pawpaw flowers come out early March and the ripe fruit is ready to harvest for 2-3 weeks, from late August through to mid-September.
Can you eat the skin of a pawpaw?
The papaya plant produces latex, and some of this substance can come in contact with the skin during harvest. As such, eating the fruit’s skin can lead to stomach irritation. Although you shouldn’t eat the skin, you can safely eat the seeds of the fruit, which has a spicy flavor.
What is pawpaw fruit good for?
Pawpaws are very nutritious fruits. They are high in vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper, and manganese. They are a good source of potassium and several essential amino acids, and they also contain significant amounts of riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.
How to Celebrate National Pawpaw Day
Attend a Pawpaw Festival
There are dozens of annual festivals and events celebrating the pawpaw, particularly in regions where the fruit is grown. Look for one near you!
Sample some pawpaws
Are you one of the many people who have never tasted pawpaws? Check farmers’ markets in your area to see if you can find a few varieties to try.
Try cooking with pawpaws
Find an interesting recipe and try your hand at using this sweet fruit to create a delicious pawpaw bread, fruit leather, or pudding.
5 Delicious Pawpaw Recipes
Use your favorite banana pudding recipe and swap out the bananas with pawpaws. They'll give the pudding a surprising and mellow flavor!
Mixed with copious amounts of sugar and flour, the pawpaw creates an excellent addition to cakes and quick breads.
Fruit-flavored beer is gaining in popularity, and the pawpaw lends its unique flavor perfectly to craft brews.
With its creamy texture, the pawpaw makes a delicious substitute in any mango sorbet recipe.
The sweetness of pawpaws make them an excellent candidate for long-simmering homemade jams and preserves.
Why We Love National Pawpaw Day
The pawpaw is a forgotten fruit
Although it played a major role in early American history through the mid-20th century, the pawpaw has almost been forgotten. National Pawpaw Day reminds us to appreciate this tasty and versatile fruit.
It’s a fascinating native North American fruit
The pawpaw is the U.S.’s largest native fruit, grows in many parts of the country, and tastes like the tropics!
It has a unique texture
Not many fruits have the creamy, custardy texture of the pawpaw. Have you ever tried something similar, like the Central American cherimoya?