Philadelphia's Finest Unfettered Foods

by Gen Rollins

Philadelphia is one of those wonderful places still roaming with green-covered hills and wild nutrients. Tucked in the trails of the Wissahickon Valley are the July-blooming blackberries, and hidden between Fairmount trees, wild blueberry bushes gather. In the early days of summer, mullberries make for a Cobb’s Creek arborist’s dream, and if you catch the North Philly sidewalks in just the right daylight, you can find forgotten lots full of wild carrots.

Our forests are dense with medicine, such as the Indian Ghost Pipe, which crumples from its ghostly white into a blackened ash at first touch. Mugwort explodes out of every vacant lot, protesting to defend its territory, or waiting to be dried for tea. Outside of fad foods and over-harvested foraging finds, we are home to one of the few native fruiting trees in North America!

The pawpaw is a creamy and illusive solution to the summer heat, with long, avocado-green leaves, and a slim trunk. When I’ve got enough pennies in my pocket, I like to stick one in the freezer and take it out for a low-key sundae. This is a backwards sentiment to the pawpaw’s history as a former source of fuel during the Great Depression. Likely given its genus name, Asimina, by the Algonquins of Illinois, the pawpaw served many uses for indigenous communities ages before Hernando de Soto came to shore. Growing from the northeast into the midwest of North America, pawpaws have long been a staple for the penniless. They could be found unfettered, growing near rivers and waterways, making them ripe for harvest by 20th Century African-Americans and impoverished communities whose livelihoods depended on knowledge of the land.

The fruit is sustaining, and the bark held significance to different indigenous groups as building material for boats and fishing equipment. Although the fruit is delicious, it bears poisonous seeds, which serve better as jewelry than food.

Today, the fruit still has significance to many indigenous groups, and is seldom found in regular grocery stores. It can most often be purchased at farmers markets, or seasonally at Reading Terminal Market for around $6/lb. However, being that it’s a native tree, it can also be cultivated in humus-rich soil. Keep an eye out in September for ripe pawpaws and fallen black walnuts, to make your life a little richer.