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Do's and definite don'ts of Pa.'s 'secret' fruit

Plus, the Pa. Disney theme park that never was.


September 9, 2022
Inside this edition: Sleaze-fest, Capitol records, big board, halt Disney, memorial trail, and the power of Pennsylvania pawpaws. 

The official state dog of Pennsylvania is the Great Dane. Do you know why? 

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

» One thing worth knowing: Sultan of Sleaze and film legend John Waters — Pink Flamingos, Hairspray — plans to host a film festival at F&M College in Lancaster later this month, WITF reports. Here's the website.

» One thing worth hearing: Nothing shows off the acoustics of the state Capitol rotunda quite like a mariachi band at the state's official Mexican Independence Day celebration. Capital-Star has the video.

» One thing worth summoning: The Mirror reports the world's largest Ouija board is on the roof of a Somerset County hotel. But The Inquirer reported in 2019 that it faced some big competition

» One thing worth reading: KYW recounts the failed '90s plan to build an indoor Disney theme park in Philadelphia, which left nothing more than a "big ol’ hole at the corner of Eighth and Market streets."

» One thing worth sharing: A 24-mile bike ride will mark the 20th anniversary of the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville on Sept. 24. It will also raise funds for the completion of a 9/11 National Memorial Trail.

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Pa. lawmakers spent at least $3 million on private lawyers, experts during redistricting battle, invoices show

» New maps will help decide where up to $1 billion in federal money goes for Pa. broadband expansion

» How Harrisburg Works: The rules for Pa. lawmaker per diems, speaker v. leader, and other Q&As

» Pennsylvania voter registration forms will be available at more state-run buildings under new Wolf order

» Talk of a tax increase is driving a wedge between leaders of a growing Pa. township and its fire company
It's pawpaw time. (Virginia State Parks / Flickr)

Pennsylvania’s fleeting pawpaw season has arrived, and for the next few weeks the commonwealth’s native tropical fruit — nicknamed the "hillbilly mango" — is ripe for the picking, assuming you can find one

We talked to Ohio chef, culinary educator, and author Sara Bir — pictured below — about The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook, which includes an introduction by forager Alexis Nikole Nelson and recipes for everything from pawpaw cornbread to pawpaw ketchup.

Our conversation — touching on the do's and definitely don'ts of the fruit and why Bir says she’s yet to meet a bad person who likes them — has been edited for clarity and length. 

PA Local: Can you describe the taste of a pawpaw for anyone who hasn’t tried one? 

Bir: I like to say that it is most like a mango and a banana and yet something completely unfamiliar <laughs>. It has a lot of tropical flavors. It is in the custard apple family. It’s the most northerly member of that fruit family. Its relatives are all down in the tropics. 

PA Local: What about texture?

Bir: When pawpaws are ripe they are very soft. They're like baby food.

PA Local: What’s your favorite pawpaw recipe? I thought your pawpaw lassi idea was genius.

Bir: That is my favorite. I use buttermilk instead of yogurt, but you could certainly use yogurt. And I garnish it with a little nutmeg or cumin on top, which is really the only authentic part of this lassi. (Find the full recipe here, via Columbus Monthly.) 

PA Local: What can’t a pawpaw do?

Bir: They don’t do well when heated. It has a lot of volatile flavor compounds that are destroyed when you heat them, leaving a bit of a funky aftertaste. 

PA Local: Got it. So best served cold. What about dried pawpaw? 

Bir: Oh, Colin, that's an excellent question. It does not work. When you dehydrate a pawpaw or cook it down enough, it will concentrate a naturally occurring compound that is the same thing that is found in ipecac syrup, which is used to induce vomiting.

PA Local: So pawpaw lassi for my friends and fruit leather for my enemies. On that note: You once said, “I have yet to meet a person who is drawn to pawpaws who is not a good person.” What did you mean by that? 

Bir: Sure. I think anybody who even hears about pawpaws is somebody who has their feelers out for something that's outside of their daily existence. They’re people who are open-minded. 

PA Local: Does the pawpaw have a type? 

Bir: When I go to the pawpaw festival (happening later this month in Albany, Ohio), you see people with all kinds of backgrounds — religious backgrounds, political beliefs, lifestyles — but the thing they have in common is this affinity for an atypical fruit.  

PA Local: Is the pawpaw countercultural? Or is that going too far? 

Bir: I don't think it's going too far. It's both countercultural and very, very traditional. It's a seasonal thing that was passed down through generations by the people who settled in these areas. I'd almost say it's an underground thing. This whole slow-burning pawpaw phenomenon has been from the ground up, and it had to be because you can’t get them in stores.

PA Local: Will that change? 

Bir: There is pawpaw ice cream and gelato and beer. But the reason you don't see the fresh fruit in stores is because the fruits ripen at different times on the same tree. You can't just pick them and have them ripen off the tree. If you bring a hard pawpaw home, it's gonna stay hard.

It would take years and years of [selective] breeding, and while plant people have been working on it, nobody’s been throwing money behind it.

PA Local: What’s the best way to find them fresh then?

Bir: I mean this sounds ridiculous, but once you are identified as a pawpaw-curious person, there is somebody who's eventually going to come up to you in person or on social media and be like, 'Oh, hey, there's a pawpaw tree growing on blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.' 

And that's what's so cool about the whole thing: This has happened not because some marketer thought it was a great idea. It's not because an influencer is really into pawpaws and making smoothies that make your hair and skin beautiful. It's just people talking to people about stuff they think is cool. 

Colin Deppen, PA Local editor

An Eastern kingbird at North Park Lake, via Pete D. Send us your photos, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

Pennsylvania made the Great Dane its official state dog in 1965 because founder William Penn's family had one, and because, the official proclamation insists, "the outline of the Great Dane’s head resembles the outline of the Commonwealth’s boundaries." Agree to disagree.

Here's more official state symbols, for future trivia tests.

Thanks for reading PA Local! We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? What do you want to see more of? 

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