Celebrating Paw Paw, Michigan

What do you get when you cross a banana, with a mango, and a pineapple? No, this isn’t the setup to a bad joke. It’s the best way to describe the rich flavor of the famous Pawpaw fruit. 

Asimina triloba or pawpaw trees used to grow wild along the rivers in southwest Michigan. They became the namesake of the Paw Paw River and the village of Paw Paw, Michigan. In honor of National Pawpaw Day, which is on September 15th this year,  we thought we would jump off of I-94 to see why the village and the fruit pack so much flavor into such a small place.

The Garden Griddle in Paw Paw, MI

I had the honor of speaking with Sarah Cox, Owner of The Garden Griddle. Cooking from scratch with the freshest local ingredients, this mother and daughter team works together to bring creative culinary flair in a casual and cozy cafe setting. “Paw Paw is the ideal place for our business,” says Sarah Cox of The Garden Griddle. “We love the small town vibe with the big town feel.  Paw Paw is a great place for vacationers and is full of proud small business owners that offer amazing products.”

Owner Sarah Scott stands in front of Sweet Bee’s

Paw Paw’s vibrant downtown also has something to offer your sweet tooth. Across the street from Garden Griddle is Sweet Bee’s Bakery. Sarah Scott, the owner, began her gluten free and dairy free bakery for a very important reason. “My son inspired me when he developed health issue. I found cutting gluten out of our diet helped him dramatically. I started baking gluten free out of our Chicago apartment and when we moved back to Michigan, the farmers’ market circuit with much success,” Scott says.  “Now we’ve been in business almost 3 years, survived a global pandemic, mandatory shutdowns, and are now opening a brand new, gluten-free and plant-based restaurant early this fall in Portage, Michigan.”

As part of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, one of the big draws of Paw Paw is the wine. St. Julian Winery is an award winning, fourth generation winery that produces over 100 products, including distilled spirits and ciders. For over 100 years, St. Julian has committed to using 100% Michigan fruit. “We love showcasing how sophisticated Michigan wine can truly be,” Alyssa Sonnevil, St. Julian Marketing Manager, says. “At the East Meets West Wine Challenge, our 2020 Braganini Reserve Mountain Road Estate Riesling was awarded Best of Show, Best of Class, and winner of the “Riesling Challenge” competition. This shows how high quality our wine truly is.”

Another attraction in the area is local Paw Paw Brewing. Since 2010, this community minded brewery has been brewing on the banks of the Paw Paw River. Serving over 25+ different beer styles alongside euchre events, bingo, and live music. Ryan Sylvester, Owner and founder, has brought a community mindset with his brewpub along the Paw Paw River. “The amazing, loyal, and supportive community sets Paw Paw apart,” Sylvester says. ”Each one of the 1200 mugs lining our pub belongs to a mug club member. We wouldn’t be what we are today without the support of this incredible community.”

Though they are the namesake of the town, pawpaws can be elusive due to their short season and delicate flesh. “I’ve had paw paw fruit by itself, as well as in beer,” Sylvester says. “We’re hoping to make another batch using pawpaw fruit again soon, but it hasn’t been easy to get our hands on it in bulk.”

Brookside Blueberry Farm is also known as Fritz’s Blueberries

Southwest Michigan is an agricultural powerhouse and is known as the blueberry capital of Michigan, producing millions of pounds of these berries each year. According to Kristin Fritz Kubiszak, owner of Brookside Blueberry Farm, Paw Paw is the sweet spot of the Fruit Belt. Since 1957, her farm, now a fifth generation blueberry farm, has grown to 350 acres and become a local favorite for U-pick. “Our goal is to teach others about agriculture,” Kubiszak says. “In addition to farming, she is also on the Van Buren Farm Bureau of Directors. ”I want to see visitors get back to their roots. We are always working hard keeping the word of agriculture positive. We continue to foster that education amongst the public and in our schools. It’s our number one priority, helping people have the understanding of what we are doing to protect the land and our environment.”

Paw Paw, Michigan is a tight knit community of growers, creators, and tastemakers. This little village named after an unassuming “Michigan banana” offers a variety complex flavors. In honor of National Pawpaw Day on the third Thursday of September, be sure to celebrate by picking up a pawpaw at your local Southern Michigan Farmers Market. They are quite rare even during the limited season starting in mid September through mid October. You can search for your local farmers market here.

Neil Davey is a resident of Marshall, MI and is the Southwest Michigan Local Food Coordinator for Taste the Local Difference. This Hoosier turned Michigander can often be found writing his next book, fooling around in the garden, experimenting with his weekly CSA produce, or planning his next hiking trip somewhere in the pleasant peninsula.

Further Reading: