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For the longest time pawpaws were one of the only fruits Ozark hillfolk could gather. This was long before there were any apple orchards or peach trees, and the plums were of the wild variety which make a tasty jelly but are mostly pit and worm in my experience. Pawpaws became integrally linked with the Ozark people. I can remember stories from both my grandpa’s about gathering up pawpaws to eat, and my mom always talks about how annoying it was to clean up smooshed pawpaw residue from off the driveway at her dad’s body shop. I can remember even singing the pawpaw rhyme, although I can only ever recall the one line “Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pockets, way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.” The full song goes something like this:

Where, oh where, oh where is Susie?
Where, oh where, oh where is Susie?
Where, oh where, oh where is Susie?
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Come on, kids, let’s go find her,
Come on, kids, let’s go find her,
Come on, kids, let’s go find her,
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Pickin’ up paw-paws, puttin’ ’em in your pockets,
Pickin’ up paw-paws, puttin’ ’em in your pockets,
Pickin’ up paw-paws, puttin’ ’em in your pockets,
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

I’m usually able to find a few pawpaws to eat every season. There has been a swift decrease in pawpaw trees in the Ozarks over the years due to deforestation, but recently there’s been an effort among naturalists to help get the tree reestablished. Much like with the chinquapin trees, I think there’s even a registry where you can list the pawpaw trees that you’re growing. This year I managed to find about ten good-sized pawpaws that hadn’t been claimed yet. Usually you want to wait for them to fall out of the tree, a sure way of knowing they’re ripe. But you don’t want to wait too long or the squirrels and insects will have claimed them as their own. I should have been checking the trees sooner because there were about ten other pawpaws on the ground that had already rotted.

I also had the chance this year to help a friend of mine turn these pawpaws into an absolutely wonderful pawpaw pudding, which is pudding in the British usage being more of a cake than what we know of as pudding. Here’s the recipe we used from the North Caroline Folklife Institute:

Pawpaw Pudding:
2 c. sugar
1½ c. bread flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. cinnamon
3 eggs
2 c. pawpaw pulp
1½ c. milk
½ c. melted butter
Preheat the oven to 350 F, and grease a 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. In the center of a large mixing bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: sugar, flour, baking powder, and cinnamon. Into a well in the center of the dry ingredients, add and whisk the eggs. Whisk until fully mixed. Whisk and mix in the other wet ingredients: pulp, milk, and butter. Pour and scrape the batter into the baking dish and bake 50 minutes. To test for doneness, slide a toothpick into the center of the pudding, and it should come out clean. Like custard, if you jiggle the pan, the center should be set.

Serving: Cut the pudding into squares, and serve it with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, hard sauce, or crème anglaise.

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The entire pawpaw tree has also made its way into Ozark folklore and magic. Here are some tidbits from Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

“The pawpaw tree is well known to be connected with witchcraft and devil worship, and even a gray-and-black butterfly (Papilio ajax) is looked upon as ‘strange’ because it is so often seen fluttering about pawpaw trees. People near Goodman, Missouri, tell me that there is some direct connection between pawpaw trees and malaria, but just what this relation is I don’t know. Pawpaws are becoming rare in many sections where they were formerly abundant; this is regarded by the old-timers as a bad omen, perhaps a sign that the end of the world is at hand.”

“There are many ways of detecting a witch, such as hiding a Bible in her mattress, placing a broomstick in her path, scratching a little cross under the seat of her chair, or adding a bit of pawpaw bark to her tobacco. Any of these measures will make a witch deathly sick, while an innocent woman is not affected. Another method is to take a new awl and fix it in the seat of a chair, so that only a very little of the point sticks through. Then get the suspected woman to sit down in the chair. If she jumps and cries out, it means that she is not a witch, since a witch doesn’t feel the sharp point at all.”

“Some of the old-timers drive three nails into the outside of a door, in the form of a triangle, to keep witches away from the cabin; one man told me that the three nails represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost and were particularly efficacious in protecting an expectant mother from the powers of evil. Painting the outside of a door blue is said to be a sensible precaution also, and some people make doubly sure by driving several tiny pegs of pawpaw wood into the doorsill.”

“If it is possible to obtain any part of the witch’s body such as fingernail parings, a lock of hair, a tooth, or even a cloth with some of her blood upon it the witch doctor has recourse to another method. Out in the woods at midnight he bores a hole in the fork of a pawpaw tree, and drives a wooden peg into the hole. Once, despite the protests of a superstitious hillman who was with me, I pulled out one of these pegs and examined it. The end was covered with beeswax, in which several long hairs were imbedded. There was a circle of what appeared to be dried blood higher up on the peg, and the auger hole contained a quantity of fine sand. A similar ‘pawpaw conjure’ is sometimes employed by cuckold husbands, but it is primarily intended to deal with women who ‘talk the Devil’s language.'”

“The relatives of a murdered man sometimes throw pawpaw seeds into the grave, on top of the coffin. It is said that this insures that the murderer will be punished. Other old-timers, in similar case, prefer to pull down the top of a little cedar tree and fasten it with a big stone. This somehow helps to catch the murderer. As soon as the man is punished, somebody must hurry out and move the stone; if the cedar is not released there’ll be another killing in the neighborhood.”

“Many farmers say that it is a good idea to bury a bit of a cow’s afterbirth under a pawpaw tree, as this will cause her to bring forth female calves thereafter.”

“In rural Arkansas the backwoods girls tie little pieces of cloth to the branches of certain trees usually pawpaw or hawthorn, sometimes redbud or ironwood. I have seen five of these little bundles in a single pawpaw tree. I have untied several and examined them carefully; there was nothing in them that I could see, just little pieces of cloth, doubtless torn from old dresses or petticoats. The natives say they are love charms, but just how they work I do not know. No woodsman that I have ever known would think of touching one of these objects, and I have often been warned that it is very bad luck to ‘monkey with such as that.'”