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Everything you wanted to know about pawpaws

John Vukmirovich wants see native tropical fruit tree pawpaw grow more prominent place. The fruit proper ripeness has custard texture

John Vukmirovich wants to see the native tropical fruit tree, the pawpaw, grow to a more prominent place. The fruit in proper ripeness has a custard texture with hints of vanilla and even coconut. Credit: Dale Bowman

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Updated: November 14, 2013 6:34AM

Somewhere, I’m not sure whether in Indiana or Illinois, we found a pawpaw tree growing near the wild complex by Eggers Grove on the Southeast Side.

The problem is, it takes two, baby, to make a dream come true. With apologies to Marvin Gaye, pawpaws aren’t self-pollinators, so two are needed to make the fruit of the one tropical-type tree native to our area.

The tree John Vukmirovich showed to me didn’t have a nearby tree; hence, no fruit.

Earlier this month, I had the chance to join Vukmirovich on his ‘‘morning perambulation,’’ in part to look at pawpaws.

Vukmirovich is crazy for pawpaws, which might explain why he named that one Oja Kodar, in honor of Orson Welles’ muse and mistress. It probably helps that she was a Slavic beauty, too.

Vukmirovich has campaigned — unsuccessfully, so far — for a pawpaw stamp. I am all for quixotic quests, especially when one is attached to something righteous in the outdoors.

Pawpaws are a great native
fruit tree.

Don’t get started on the tall tales and fibs associated with Johnny Appleseed.

Do we need a Paulie Pawpaw? Probably not because we’ve got Vukmirovich.

‘‘They are American; they were here before the Indians were,’’ Vukmirovich said. ‘‘It’s backwoods America, America before television.’’

Oh, hallelujah.

Lewis and Clark ate them in fat times and lean. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had them in pudding. Jefferson had them sent to France. Henry David Thoreau wrote about them as the American custard apple.

That’s an apt name. The pulp of the ripe fruit, which is the size and shape of a smaller pear, has the consistency of custard, but large, black seeds are scattered throughout.

To reach the pulp, halve the pawpaw like an avocado, take out the seeds, then spoon out the pulp.

There are five stages of ripeness in pawpaws.

‘‘You don’t want to eat stage one or stage five,’’ Vukmirovich said.

Back at his house in the 10th Ward, he picked a few pawpaws from a pair of his trees — one a wild variety and one an Allegheny — for me to sample. He suggested eating it as you would a custard or making pawpaw smoothies or daiquiris. If you’re allergic to such things as mangoes or papayas, don’t dabble in pawpaws.

The fruit we picked were in stage three, and he suggested there would be ‘‘subtle hints of banana and vanilla.’’ I got the vanilla but not the banana.

‘‘The flavors change, and some people say pineapple [or] a hint of coconut,’’ Vukmirovich said.

My sons and my wife hated the pulp, putting on expressions that turned their faces into human raisins (Marvin Gaye, again). They didn’t even like the smoothies. My daughter and I enjoyed it enough that we ate all the other pawpaws, both as a custard and as ice-cream smoothies.

Next time, I will experiment with adding sugar and a squeeze of lime, a flavor spark.

Pawpaws and zebra swallow butterflies are connected, maybe because both are the only ones of their kind living this far north. If you see the distinctive butterfly, a patch of pawpaws is probably near.

As Vukmirovich ordered, my daughter and I saved the seeds, then put them in compost in slightly open plastic bags in the garage. In the spring, we will transplant any sprouts to pots.

If teachers or scout leaders would like to join the quixotic quest, I happily will drop off a bag of seeds.

The organization for pawpaws is the North American Pawpaw Growers.

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