Summer fades and leaves begin to fall as southeast Ohio’s 21st Annual Pawpaw Festival prepares to share its local traditions with students, Athens residents and visitors from all over. The festival, which was founded in 1998, revolves around the many uses of the pawpaw plant.
The pawpaw, a native southeast Ohio plant, is a small yellowish-green fruit that has a sweeter flavor similar to a pineapple. Vendors serve various culinary delights concocted from the pawpaw, along with other delicious food while participants sample all the different dishes.
The Pawpaw Festival will take place this weekend from Sept. 13 to 15 at Lake Snowden. The festival will be open on Friday from 4 p.m. to midnight, Saturday from 10 a.m. to midnight and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Haley Richards, like many students at Ohio University, has yet to experience the delights of the festival, but has heard about the rich traditions that surround it from her fellow classmates.
“We learned about the pawpaw plant in plant biology class,” Richards, a junior studying English pre-law, said. “Though I’ve never personally been, I do know that pawpaws primarily grow in Appalachia, so it makes sense it is an Athens festival.”
Chris Chmiel, founder of the Pawpaw Fest, first became interested in the native fruit after discovering it on his 18-acre property.
“I wanted to help educate people to what a pawpaw is and how to use it,” Chmiel said in an email. “I also wanted it to be a community celebration. I knew that there really wasn't a long standing pawpaw festival anywhere in the world so this would be a very unique event.”
Chmiel, who serves as an Athens County Commissioner, uses the historical significance of the pawpaw fruit to highlight its unusual history to Athens locals and students alike.
Though celebrating the historical and cultural significance of the pawpaw is primary, other vendors and booths flock to the festival to show off their wares and add their own distinct products to the fray. This year, new vendors like the Cannabis Museum will be selling CBD-based products and breweries Urban Artifact and Earthworks Brewing will be satisfying their customers with homemade ales and beers.
“I think it's going to be awesome, it's always awesome,” Chelsea Hidenach, owner of Chelsea’s Real Food and culinary creativist, said. “We’ve been getting requests for pawpaw smoothies so this year we created one from pawpaw, ginger, coconut milk and several other ingredients. We (Chelsea’s Real Food) are a niche market with all kinds of customers, but offer a lot of locally sourced, vegan and gluten-free options to the oddball eaters.”
Hidenach, who owns and runs a food truck favorite, has been working the Pawpaw Festival for years servings pawpaw specialities to festival partakers.
While the festival encourages new food businesses to try their hand at local recipes, advocates and representatives of various organizations come out of the woodwork to gather support and educate patrons.
Environmental advocacy is another emphasis to festival goers, shown in the many booths and green-friendly businesses who come to participate. With the emergence of a new and extremely toxic petrochemical plant being built in West Virginia, the simple task of recycling plastics gains even more importance to residences as advocates work to encourage others to do their part to “Rethink Plastics, Rethink Energy, Rethink Our Future!”
While the festival itself only lasts for a short while, Chmiel and others hope that the lingering cultural impact of the pawpaw will encourage all to pay more attention to the rich backdrop of Athens history.
“I think this has become important to Athens because it is a really friendly family vibe where people of different ages can come and hang out together, learn things, see friends and appreciate the time of year,” Chmiel said. “It has become important to OU because it is such a unique festival and a great way to get to know parts of the community outside of the city of Athens.”