America’s Most Obscure Fruit Makes the Best Ice Cream

For the paw paw underground, early fall is a mad race against the deer for this seasonal delicacy

It’s possible your only reference is the song, but if you’ve never heard of paw paws before, you’re not alone. Not even Andrew Moore, author of Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, had seen one before just a few years ago. It’s understandable; the strange, creamy, tropical-tasting fruit is elusive—though it’s native to America, it can only be foraged, not cultivated, and its brief growing season in early fall makes it especially rare, even for the paw-paw-mad.

It’s the kind of ingredient that develops into an obsession, and with local, foraged, and seasonal foods all in vogue, chefs are now embracing the paw paw across the country, giving a whole population of Americans their first taste of this curious but delicious fruit.

A botanical cousin of the cherimoya (custard apple), paw paws have a sweet, tropical flavor and custardy texture reminiscent of a mango. Under a tough, inedible green skin that turns purplish-black as the fruit ripens, there is sweet, orange flesh with a dense, creamy bite. More than a dozen varieties of paw paw grow wild across the South, Mid Atlantic, and Midwest, often near rivers and streams. But the season is painfully short, just a month or so to find the fruit before woodland animals like deer realize it’s in season, too.

Justin Dean, the chef/owner behind the Madhouse Vinegar company in North Bend, Ohio, goes on a daily paw paw hunt for about three weeks in early fall, hitting different patches and hauling out up to 40 pounds on a good day. He says this year has been a particularly good season. On a recent hunt he “probably got close to 15 pounds off one tree,” and he’s seen extra-large clusters of “six to eight fruit hanging” in trees where normally you find a mere two or three.

America’s Most Obscure Fruit Makes the Best Ice Cream

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