An even bigger festival in Ohio has been drawing fans since 1999. “Last year we had nearly 10,000 visitors,” said Chris Chmiel, co-owner of Integration Acres in Albany, Ohio, where he grows papayas, ships papaya products and helps organize the annual village fete. “People attend every year, and it has become a family tradition for many. We also hold a papaya cooking contest, a best papaya contest and a papaya eating contest. Papaya beer has been a Huge success for the festival!”
Chmiel came across papaya as a student, and it influenced the course of his studies and his career in sustainable agriculture. He even has a tattoo of the fruit on his arm. “It’s a tropical fruit that grows right here in Appalachia…it’s sort of the king of native plants here,” he said at a TEDx talk in 2018.
Papaya belongs to the same family as custard apple, cherimoya, soursop, soursop and ylang-ylang. It is a subtropical fruit that migrated north from Central America, and it is atypical; the only member of the family not confined to the tropics.
The earliest fossil evidence of papayas dates back to the Miocene epoch, approximately 23 to 5.3 million years ago in present-day Colorado. Over time, the climate has experienced periods of warming, expanding the range of tropical areas northward and, by extension, papaya. Additionally, scientists have speculated that papayas were dispersed northward by megafauna, such as mastodons, mammoths and sloths, saber-toothed cats and giant beavers.
There is evidence that humans also played a role in the dispersal of papaya. “The natives of the eastern half of the country have always used papayas,” said Dr. Devon Mihesuah, a Choctaw Nation citizen who holds the Cora Lee Beers Price Professorship in International Cultural Understanding at the University of Kansas. “The Iroquois are said to have crushed papayas and made the flesh into cakes, then dried them in the sun. They were used as travel food or mixed with water into cornbread.”
In 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto noticed Native Americans growing it east of the Mississippi River. George Washington wrote in his diary in 1785, “I have planted all my cedars, all my papayas, and two acacias.” (Although there is no historical documentation, it is said that chilled papaya was Washington’s favorite dessert.) In 1786, when Thomas Jefferson was minister in France, he had papaya seeds and plants shipped from Virginia to friends in Europe. A journal entry by explorers Lewis and Clark dated September 18, 1806 stated that the men were “entirely short of provisions” but “seemed perfectly content”, living “very well on papayas”.
The texture of the fruit has been compared to custard, and the flavor is “a blend of banana and mango, with undertones of vanilla, caramel, pineapple, coconut, and melon, depending on the cultivar” , said Sheri Crabtree, associated with horticulture and extension research. in the Papaya Research Program at Kentucky State University.