Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

September 5, 2012

Morris: Under the paw paw tree

Ben Morris, MA, RPA
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — One of the most pleasant memories I have as a boy growing up during the 1950's in Indiana were those in which my dad and I hunted squirrels in the fall.

He knew where all the den trees were. He also knew where the wild paw paw trees were. Some folks call paw paws "Indiana Bananas."

Paw paws ripen in early-to-mid September, about the same time squirrel season comes in, but they're only good to eat for a relatively short period of time. Dad liked to pick paw paws straight off the tree. If they were out of reach, he would stand under the tree and knock them down with a long stick. I've never seen paw paws in stores, but from time-to-time, they are available in "farmer's markets."

Explorers and early settlers were all very familiar with wild paw paws. Archaeologists have long known that Native Americans were cultivating the fruit east of the Mississippi nearly 500 years, and possibly earlier.

Our first and third Presidents (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, respectively) also enjoyed the taste of paw paws.

Paw paws were among the many exotic plants Jefferson cultivated at Monticello, his mountaintop plantation in Virginia.

Dad and I arrived in the woods just as the sun was coming up one morning, and parked our old Chevy in the Mount Zion church parking lot in rural Montgomery County.

Dad's mom and dad, who died before I was born, had been faithful members of the church for several decades.

About halfway across the graveyard next to the church, Dad stopped beside one of the graves. "That's old man Brock's grave," he said, pointing to a small, moss-covered stone marker. "He's been gone some time now. He was 104 when he went to meet his maker. They say he was up in a cherry tree with a bucket a couple of days before he died."

"Over there," Dad said, pointing to an old stone marker that had been broken and propped up with a big rock, "is the oldest grave here. It belongs to a soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War."

At the edge of the graveyard, we stopped while Dad lit his pipe and tamped it down. After a minute or two, we climbed a rickety boundary fence at the edge of the graveyard and made our way as quietly as we could down a hill, careful not to step on a dry twig that would give us away. We sat down under a big ash tree near an old den tree.

Before long, Dad cupped his hand to his ear and nodded. A fox squirrel was busy gnawing acorns somewhere near the top of an old oak tree. We sat quietly as bits of shell rained down through the leaves.

After a few minutes, Dad whispered for me to stay put while he circled around the tree. When the squirrel heard Dad, it stopped gnawing, then it came around to my side of the tree. Dad looked at me and nodded. I raised my single-shot Iver Johnson, clicked back the hammer and squeezed the trigger Ñ and then... nothing!

My heart sank. I had forgotten to put a shell in my gun. I felt like crawling under a leaf, but Dad just grinned, shook his head and motioned for me to follow him. I knew where he was headed when he pulled out an onion sack from his bib overalls. "If Preacher John's old Jersey bull isn't around, we can pick us a sack full of paw paws to go with that squirrel we almost had," he chuckled.

Jersey bulls are a relatively small breed and are often bad-tempered. "The paw paws should be just right about now."

Preacher John and Dad had grown up together, attended the same one-room school house, hunted and fished together, and at one time, Dad said, they were both "sweet on the same girl."

As we made our way toward the paw paw patch, I recalled a story Dad told me once about Preacher John and him.

Preacher John was plowing one morning when Dad stopped to tell him it was his birthday.

"Good morning, John," Dad said. "Today is my birthday. I'm 21-years-old today and the best man in Montgomery County."

John couldn't let that pass.

He dropped his plow, pitched his straw hat to one side and said, "Well, climb over the fence and we'll see about that."

Dad never did tell me who won, but he did say they tore up half an acre of corn wrestling around!

Luckily, we filled our sack with nice, ripe paw paws before Preacher John's bull saw us. Dad kept his eye on the bull, and when it started to paw the ground, we high-tailed it for home.

Paw paws make great tasting cakes, pies and even ice cream.

However, paw paws are quite perishable and they get kind of squishy if left un-refrigerated for longer than a couple days. Many folks find that paw paws have a tropical-like, fruity taste. Some say they taste like banana cream pie. Researchers have also found that paw paws are higher in antioxidants and Vitamin C than apples, peaches and grapes.

For a list of delicious Native American paw paw recipes, email "Snake" Jones at Kentucky State University at sjones@gwmail.kysu.edu.

Ben Morris, MA, RPA is an archaeological and historical columnist for the Daily News. He can be reached by phone at (812) 932-0298 or bjmorris1935@gmail.com.