Thanks to the efforts of local farmer and Athens county commissioner Chris Chmiel, the humble pawpaw is gaining serious street cred as a delicious, nutritious native fruit whose tropical flavors are worth bringing back into the kitchen.
Chris, along with his wife, Michelle Gorman, have been growing and selling pawpaws since 1996, when they first launched their line of pickled pawpaws from their farm, which is aptly named Integration Acres for its approach to organic, sustainable practices. In 1998, Chris and Michelle launched their line of frozen, seedless pawpaw pulp that they ship around the country. For the past 17 years, Chris and Michelle have also organized the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival, which has not only put the pawpaw, but also Athens, Ohio, on the culinary map.
ACCVB: What prompted you to get into pawpaws?
Chris: I got into pawpaws because of how interesting, delicious and nutritious they are. I have a lot of interest in sustainable agriculture and the pawpaw excites me a lot in this way. A native tree that is naturally resistant to pests that provides a tropical taste right here in Ohio. The more I learned about pawpaws, the more excited I got. As I learned more, I realized that Southern Ohio was blessed with some of the best wild pawpaw genetics in the world. It was a perfect pawpaw storm.
A: How do you know if a pawpaw is ripe and ready to eat?
C: A pawpaw should be soft and fruity smelling when ready to eat. The flesh is usually yellow or orange when ripe. If the fruit is hard and white-fleshed, avoid these under-ripe fruit. You can actually look into the trees and see the fruit clusters start to “sag” as they become ripe.
A: What’s your favorite way to eat a pawpaw?
C: My favorite way to eat a pawpaw is while I’m out harvesting or hiking. I like a nice ripe fresh pawpaw that may come from off the ground. I like the ones that smell like bubble gum the most.
A: Why a festival about pawpaws?
C: The pawpaw festival is all about having fun and educating people about this great native fruit. I guess I always felt like a cultural event that had lots of good times mixed into it could get through to people. I believe that people can learn best by having a “full body” pawpaw experience and lots of fun.
A: What are you most looking forward to during this year’s Ohio Pawpaw Festival?
C: This year I’m excited to have more speakers and authors at our festival. I’m also glad to see how our Energy Village Tent is growing and growing. I think the pawpaw is becoming a symbol of a sustainable culture we’re trying to foster here in Athens County. Also excited about the 11 microbreweries coming from around Ohio and our new consolidated food vendor area.
A: What’s one thing about the festival people need to know before they make their trip?
C: The Ohio Pawpaw Festival is very affordable and satisfying for our visitors. We’ve been voted the best festival in Ohio and Athens. We’ve got a very authentic, laid back, down-to-earth and intriguing festival with lots of quality people, businesses, information and products. We’re proud of having a level of quality that a lot of festivals lack. I would almost guarantee that people are going to have a great visit to the festival and I’d encourage them to bring their tent and stay for the whole weekend. Many people now make the festival an annual tradition.
When they’re not planning the Pawpaw Festival, you can find Chris and Michelle at the Athens Farmers Market, selling pawpaw and other indigenous products as well as a line of farmstead cheeses. Learn more about Integration Acres and the Asimina triloba (a.k.a. the pawpaw tree) at www.integrationacres.com. Plan your trip to celebrate Ohio’s native fruit here.