Move over, Acai – It’s papaya time

From mid-August to early October, Maryland edible landscaper Michael Judd eats almost nothing but papaya, a creamy mango-shaped fruit that tastes like candied banana. He loves papaya crème brûlée, papaya panna cotta, black bean and papaya lasagna. When the papaya season is at its peak, as it is now, he spends so much time harvesting that he barely has time to eat his meals. “I’m so busy – I go out and keep going, but I’m eating papaya,” Judd said on a hot evening not too long ago. “I will eat two or three papayas, and I can completely run and fully function and work. I’m very sensitive to what I eat and my energy, so for that alone I can tell you that this is a really strong and complete food.

Judd, who lives with his family on a twenty-five acre permaculture farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was arranging chairs on a rooftop garden in Red Hook. He was in town to host a group of about twenty horticulturists, urban farmers, agronomists and papaya enthusiasts, who had come for a “papaya-ice-cream party” and to hear evangelisms about papayas. Six of the guests had never tried the fruit before. The berry, America’s largest native edible tree fruit, grows wild and abundant in twenty-six states, but it’s almost never in grocery stores.

The papaya-curious came and sat in a semi-circle around Judd. Most wore pragmatic clothes: orthopedic sandals, waterproof boots, dirty pants. Forty-eight-year-old Judd, with sharp features, was sipping papaya mead. “I am a modern day papaya ambassador,” he said. “Papayas for the people!” It is a movement. He explained that he had lived for twenty years in Latin America, mainly in Nicaragua, where he had become interested in equatorial plants. “I’ve grown a lot of tropical relatives of papayas,” he said. When he returned to Maryland in 2010, he noticed, for the first time, papayas hanging from the trees. “I’m coming back to live here, and all of a sudden there’s this tropical-looking fruit growing near me,” he said. “There are over two thousand species in the custard apple family, and the papaya is the one that said, ‘I’m going north.’ “Judd invited guests to share their own experiences with papaya.

“The first time I had a papaya was about an hour ago,” said Maya Kutz, greenhouse manager at a rooftop farm.

“The first one I tried was overripe,” said a woman with big dark brown curls. “And I didn’t like it at all.”

“As a fruit, it’s very perishable,” Judd said. “Remember this: freeze them. Then peel it like a potato. He explained the stages of maturity: hard as a stone on the branch, then softer, like a peach, when picked. After about five days in the fridge, he says, “it will get a little richer and caramelized, almost like coffee.”

A young man wearing glasses interrupted him to ask for advice on germinating the seeds he was storing in his fridge. “I just want to know: is it as easy as dropping seeds in Central Park? ” he said. (Not enough.)

A man carrying a metal meditation pyramid above his head asked, “Have you ever had papaya juice?”

“Juice?” Judd replied He looked indignant.

“I find it much easier to find other exotic fruits,” said a bearded man, sitting cross-legged on the ground. “I couldn’t find papayas anywhere.”

“You will soon,” Judd said. He added that over the past five years, small orchards along the East Coast have started growing papayas, and papaya festivals have popped up in Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Carolina. North. Kentucky scientists are looking to extend the shelf life of papayas to make their large-scale cultivation economically viable. Judd said, “It’s hot. It’s coming. It’s interesting.

“A word of warning,” said the bespectacled man. He dried papayas in fruit leather: “These are the tastiest laxatives I have ever had.”

“It’s like a cleanse,” Judd said. “You want to take it easy.”

At the end of the conversation, Kutz, the greenhouse manager, asked if Judd would help plant papaya trees. Kutz dug two holes in a wooden planter. Judd put down two delicate trees. He delicately cut some leaves. “It will solve transplant shock,” he said. “It’s like being born.” After making sure the plants were firmly rooted, Kutz and Judd headed down the street to Red Hook Channel, hoping to catch the sunset. Judd inspected the trees lining the street. Papayas? “Blackberries,” he said. “Blackberries everywhere.” ♦

Luz W. German