As a child, I loved gathering wild plums and blackberries in my Berkeley, California backyard. As a teacher in Georgia — the country — I spent hours wandering the mountains behind my village collecting tiny mountain strawberries, purslane and feral mulberries.
Indiana autumn foraging has two stars: pawpaws and persimmons.
Foraging is one of my favorite ways to get to know a place. You learn the flavors, the flora and the seasons, and while you’re in the woods you meet delightful people often willing to share their local secrets.
When I came here last August, I immediately researched local foods. However, unlike pork tenderloin sandwiches or sugar cream pie, eating a pawpaw or a persimmon gives me an insight not only into how people eat in Indiana now, but into the state’s precolonial history. The Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi and Shawnee people who lived here before the arrival of European settlers ate these fruits too.
Last fall I was too busy with the chaos of moving to a new place to take much notice of the botanical aspects of Bloomington. This year is different. There are no campus visits, no spur-of-the-moment lunch dates, no awkward grad school mixers. It’s quieter, and I spend a lot of time walking alone.
When fall came, I walked downtown and happened upon a tree with the tiniest persimmons I’d ever seen. I picked one, hard and orange like the fuyu persimmons I was familiar with from California, and took a bunch of pictures of it, proud of my score. Then, an actual ripe one fell next to me. I was prouder, and relieved I had avoided the bitter fate of biting into the first one. I continued my walk and found another tree and later, an entire bowlful waiting, with a note saying to take them all.
I took them. I tried one raw and it wasn’t great, but I had just enough to make a cup of persimmon purée for persimmon pudding, another Indiana specialty. A 150-year-old recipe turned out a delightful, autumnal dessert I ate with vanilla ice cream – a nice change of pace from the world of pumpkin spice.
After my persimmon success, I decided to find a pawpaw, a fruit I had heard a fellow student mention last year as an excuse for missing class. I had never seen a pawpaw, much less tasted one, and while some kind souls told me I could buy one at the farmers market, I wanted my first taste of pawpaw to be in the wild, as nature intended.
Luckily, Bloomingtonians are generous with their secret spots, and I was in a stand of pawpaw trees scant hours after determining to find them. A pawpaw superfan told me the best ones fall from the trees after you shake them. If you have to actually pick them, they’re not ripe yet. On that beautiful mid-September day I found three and bought an apple fritter on the way home because I wasn’t sure they’d be a satisfying afternoon snack. I was wrong.
Pawpaws are glorious. They’re sweet and soft, vaguely tropical, somewhere between a mango and a banana — hence the nickname “Indiana banana.” They’re one of the largest native fruits, oblong and green on the outside, ivory or yellow on the inside, with big, black seeds. They are a joy both to find and to eat. I cut mine open and ate them with a spoon. I planned to eat one and use the other two in a baked good of some sort — they’re often used like bananas, in banana bread or even ice cream — but they were too delicious and I ate them all immediately.
Since then I’ve scoured woods in parks and on campus, shaking trees in the wetland, forested areas where they grow, but I have not yet found another ripe one, nor another persimmon. Pawpaw fruits mature in September and October, but perhaps the competition in Bloomington is just too stiff. Despite only having tried them once, I was hooked.
Desperate for another taste, I searched for the rumored pawpaw ice cream and visited the Bloomingfoods produce section, but to no avail. The fleeting moment of pawpaw availability seemed to have come and gone in a flash. In a moment of desperation I purchased a single bottle of pawpaw-infused beer for a ridiculous sum, $30. A sour beer, reflecting my sour mood, having loved and lost a fruit. Until next year!
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