The Pawpaw: The All-American Fruit the Country Forgot

MUExtension417, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
MUExtension417, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Truly all-American foods are hard to find—hamburgers, hot dogs, and apple pie, for example, all have foreign origins. But that doesn’t mean native foods don’t exist. Take the pawpaw: This fruit is so American that it was enjoyed by the founding fathers, but it’s also an item most U.S. residents have probably never heard of.

As Vox explains in the video below, pawpaw fruit trees were once abundant in the eastern half of the country. Indigenous people ate the flesh of the fruit and saved the seeds for medicinal purposes. Early presidents also enjoyed them: George Washington had pawpaw trees planted at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson had the seeds delivered to friends in France.

But the past few centuries haven’t been kind to the pawpaw. Commercial development has wiped out much of the pawpaw belt—a chunk of land stretching from Michigan to Florida. At the same time, the rise of supermarkets helped push the fruit into obscurity. It ripens so fast that it would become inedible in the time it takes to pick them, transport them, and place them on the shelf.

While you won’t find pawpaws at chain grocery stores, they’re still available if you know where to look. Even after years of deforestation, pawpaw trees are the most common edible fruit trees native to North America. You can seek them out at Midwestern and eastern farmers markets from late August through September. And what to do with the custardy fruit once you’ve found it? Try using it to make pie, pudding, and even ice cream.

[h/t Vox]

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

What Are Sugar Plums?

Marten Bjork, Unsplash
Marten Bjork, Unsplash

Thanks to The Nutcracker and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," sugar plums are a symbol of the holidays. But what are sugar plums, exactly? Like figgy pudding and yuletide, the phrase has become something people say (or sing) at Christmastime without knowing the original meaning. Before it was the subject of fairy dances and storybook dreams, a sugar plum was either a fruitless candy or a not-so-sweet euphemism.

According to The Atlantic, the sugar plums English-speakers ate from the 17th to the 19th century contained mostly sugar and no plums. They were made by pouring liquid sugar over a seed (usually a cardamom or caraway seed) or almond, allowing it to harden, and repeating the process. This candy-making technique was called panning, and it created layers of hard sugar shells. The final product was roughly the size and shape of a plum, which is how it came to be associated with the real fruit.

Before the days of candy factories, these confections could take several days to make. Their labor-intensive production made them a luxury good reserved for special occasions. This may explain how sugar plums got linked to the holidays, and why they were special enough to dance through children's heads on Christmas Eve.

The indulgent treat also became a synonym for anything desirable. This second meaning had taken on darker connotations by the 17th century. A 1608 definition from the Oxford English Dictionary describes a sugar plum as “something very pleasing or agreeable, esp. when given as a sop or bribe.” Having a "mouthful of sugar plums" wasn't necessarily a good thing, either. It meant you said sweet words that may have been insincere.

As true sugar plums have fallen out of fashion, demand for Christmas candy resembling the actual fruit has risen. You can now buy fancy candied plums and plum-flavored gummy candies for the holidays, but if you want something closer to the classic sugar plum, a Jordan almond is the more authentic choice.