How to forage, cook, and eat pawpaws

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I grew up near Paw Paw, Michigan, and yet never thought of it as a place for the so-named fruit. All that has changed now, with Sara Bir's genius new guide, The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. Bir knows her stuff - she's a food writer and researcher extraordinaire, and she brings those talents to this recipe zine. But she's also funny, and a great writer, and has that magical touch that makes you want to head out to the woods to find - and cook with - pawpaws, even though you may never have heard of (let alone eaten) them before. 

The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook delves into the history of pawpaws, how to find them, how to prep them, and offers a dozen delicious recipes for pawpaws. Don't live where they grow (you might!)? There are also resources for frozen pawpaw goodness - so truly, this book is for everyone. 

Bir notes, "The best way to eat a pawpaw is to stand in the woods under the tree where the pawpaw grew, and tear the pawpaw apart with your hands, and slurp the insides out. This tactic can only go so far in its practicality, and that’s where this book comes in." Oh, yes.

Here, you'll find foraging tips (including the long-term ones, of watching throughout the year for signs of pawpaw trees), prepping tips, a critical philosophy on cooking with pawpaws (there are many, many mistakes to be made. Thankfully, one read through this and we won't be making them), and recipes - oh, the recipes.

Pawpaw gelato? Yes, please.

Pawpaw pudding? Echo.

Pawpaw habanero hot sauce? Not for me, the zero flames girl, but yes for my husband, who always orders the hottest things and has a WHOLE SHELF of hot sauce in the fridge.

Bellinis, cornbread, muffins, cake, lassi - the list goes on, and, frankly, makes you hungry. If you're too late to harvest pawpaws this year, order the frozen pulp and start watching next spring for the flowers. 

Honestly? This is the most interesting cookbook I've read in a long time. Highly recommended!

How to forage, cook, and eat pawpaws - an interview with author Sara Bir

We were lucky enough to catch up with author Sara Bir, and ask her about writing the cookbook, inspiration, foraging as it relates to life and travel, and more. Here's what she had to say...

Please tell us about your new book, The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook...

It's a handmade recipe zine with a dozen original pawpaw recipes, but more generally speaking, it's an ode to pawpaws, America's best native fruit. They grow in forests in a huge swath all over the eastern United States, and many people in rural areas grew up eating them out in the woods, but those traditions became lost in the age of urban sprawl and supermarkets. 

Pawpaws are egg-shaped and have a speckled green skin that does not exactly pop out at you when you look up into the leafy canopy in the last summer, when the fruits are ripe and ready to eat. I grew up here in Marietta, Ohio and had never seen or even heard of a pawpaw until I was living on the West Coast as an adult. Once my family moved back here three years ago, I was compelled to find these rumored pawpaws. They were like the Sasquatch of fruits. But unlike Sasquatch, pawpaws are not very hard to find once you know what to look for. I wasn't even looking for pawpaws when I found my first one. I don't believe in fate, but I do believe in the magic of being receptive to the right thing in the right moment, and once I encountered my first pawpaw, that was it. I fell for its amazingly tropical flavor--the default description is a custardy love child of a mango and a banana--and I started hauling them home and have been at it ever since.

How to forage, cook, and eat pawpaws - an interview with author Sara Bir

What inspired you to write this cookbook?

I'm a recipe tester and developer by trade, and the pawpaw recipes I saw online just didn't strike me as very well-written or easy to follow. This does not mean they are bad, but I knew I could deliver something on a higher level, as far as formatting and ease of use. For a person curious about pawpaws, access to trustworthy recipes can make it or break it. But a lot of people read cookbooks just for fun, for the journey it takes them on, and I wanted to provide that experience to people who don't live in pawpaw country, or don't have time to go out in the woods every day for three weeks when pawpaws are in season.

The book as I'd initially imagined it was a traditionally published cookbook with maybe some full-color photos and about 50 recipes. But I couldn't get publishers and agents interested, and considering the relatively small audience of pawpaw aficionados, it's no wonder. I was working on writing a proposal for my pawpaw cookbook, and I kept running out of steam. So I shelved the idea, and as time passed, those involuntary gears in my id were turning, and all of a sudden I realized I should just do something simple, the way I wanted to do it. Everything I've ever known about planning for and promoting a cookbook got thrown out the window, but it felt like exactly the right approach in this one specific instance.I did this all by some crazy base instinct, on my own terms, and it was a blast. I asked some talented friends to help me out with the covers and art and layout, and they all said yes right away, which surprised and delighted me. "Hey, I'm writing a cookbook about a bizarre fruit that I don't think anyone will buy. Wanna be involved?" It was such a boost. And my collaborators are all based here in my community, and if I'd done the book in the traditional manner, they would not have been part of it. They were like pawpaws, too--right under my nose all along.

How to forage, cook, and eat pawpaws - an interview with author Sara Bir

In your book, you mention that foraging for pawpaws connects you with your nomadic self. Can you please share more about that?

Even though I'm a chef, I spend a lot of time in front of a computer: writing, editing, posting articles on the web, sourcing photos, editing photos, researching for articles, promoting articles on social media, and--ugh, here's the killer--answering emails. While I value the different kind of connectivity the internet and social media bring to our lives, I crave contact with tangible things in a dynamic context. 

And I think so many of us do. As pessimistic as it may sound, I feel like I have become a more shallow person since I created a Facebook account, as if the things that different people share only matter to me because they are some kind of a reflection on my own interests. Going out into the woods to look for pawpaws is such a tonic to that modern dread. Nature happens without me. The pawpaws will ripen whether I'm there or not. It's so humbling and comforting, and it reminds me that I'm just a thread in the giant fabric of the cosmos. And then I return to the manufactured tedium of my career, but I feel differently about it. We're all just these living things moving through space, and every experience we have is valuable, so instead of feeling defeated by our modern world, I come back to it hoping to inspire others to go and find their restorative place. That could be the woods, it could be a boxing gym, it could be a library. But to come back enriched and ready to offer the people you love the best of yourself--what's better than that? 

In your section on how to find pawpaws, I felt that your advice applies to life - and travel. So much of your book is about patience, looking, taking care, searching, and then, of course, cooking. 

Since I first encountered pawpaws three years ago, my brother thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. It's easily one of the definitive episodes of his life. I'm so proud of him for choosing to commit himself to that experience. 

And, as he shared stories and photos, I wasn't exactly envious, but I did yearn for the days when I summited gnarly peaks. I'd love to do that again someday, but it's not what my life is about now. We don't have a huge travel budget, and my daughter is five, and my husband and I don't get big blocks of time off together. That's not sad, because what's happening now--my family, my life--it's my PCT. Now that we're here, living back in this place where I grew up and never suspected I'd want to return to, it's important to me to experience it on a micro level. I have the privilege of going over the same stretches of trails day after day, and every time I notice new things about them. I learn new things about myself. This is where I am, and if I want to consider myself a grateful person, I should seek out what's amazing and miraculous about it and make an effort to put myself there. The things that truly matter to us become a practice. People talk about a yoga practice, but I have a pawpaw practice. It found me--that's the craziest thing!  I go out on the trails when they're not in season and I check up on the trees, watching them bloom and then seeing the fruit set, and then seeing their leaves turn gold and die and fall off. And then the leaves come back.

Pawpaw flowers in spring. How to forage, cook, and eat pawpaws - an interview with author Sara Bir

Pawpaw flowers in spring

Recipe testing - what was the process like? What percentage of recipes didn't make it into the book?

Recipe development and testing was different from how I'd usually go about it, simply because pawpaws are not something a person can just walk into a store and buy. The whole thing hinged on stockpiling many quarts of pawpaw pulp in the freezer, and that hinged on a few feverish weeks of foraging in the fall. Which I was totally okay with, but it meant that I could not go nuts with trying anything too off-the-wall, because my supply was finite. Also, normally I'd have any recipes destined for a cookbook cross-tested by other food writing friends--preferably ones who were not familiar with pawpaws--but from a practical standpoint, that was not possible. So I made the recipes myself over and over again, and let me tell you, my husband and daughter are completely sick of pawpaws. I share my experiments with friends to gather their feedback.

I think about 75 percent of the recipes I tinkered with did not make it into the book. Sometimes because I just was not pleased enough with the results, but sometimes because the concepts were too similar to other recipes I knew made the cut. How many recipe does a person need for pawpaw quick bread, after all? I decided that twelve really good pawpaw recipes were a fine introduction, and hopefully they would spark readers to experiment and come up with ones of their own. And even if they will never make a pawpaw recipe, I hope this book gets them fired up about trying new foods and opening themselves up to the abundance that may be right under their noses--be it pawpaws or something totally different, something that's not even edible.

pawpaws on the cutting board. How to forage, cook, and eat pawpaws - an interview with author Sara Bir

Pawpaws on the cutting board

What's up next for you?

Pawpaws are the gateway drug of foraged foods; I forage for all kinds of crazy stuff now: crabapples, mulberries, American persimmons...and right now there are some wild grapes I'm keeping an eye on. I continue to develop more recipes for foraged fruits; if I can find quince trees somewhere around here, I'd love to do a quince recipe zine like the pawpaw one. I used to forage them from our neighbor's yard in Portland, where we used to live. It's not quite like hunting for pawpaws, but I still consider urban foraging part of the foraging game.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

If you are receptive, what's seemingly an insignificant thing can become one of the most significant parts of your life. Pawpaws--this kooky, unpredictable fruit--have become the spiritual leitmotif in my life, and I'm so much the richer for it. And I'm only just getting started! Who know where they may lead me in the future? If a homely fruit can do this for me, imagine what your thing--whatever it is--can do for you. Just let it open you up to following your gut instinct and see the magic that happens because of it.

Pawpaw Gelato! How to forage, cook, and eat pawpaws - an interview with author Sara Bir

Pawpaw Gelato


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Jessie Voigts is the publisher of Wandering Educators. She has a PhD in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled around the world. She’s published six books about travel and intercultural learning, with more on the way.

Jessie is one of the top 50 travel bloggers in the world, and was named a White House travel blogger with her site, Wandering Educators, a travel library for people curious about the world. She is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding, and is passionate about study abroad and international education. 


All photos courtesy and copyright Sara Bir


Note: We received a review e-copy of this book - thank you so much!