A garden Papaya with its enormous immature fruit is shown below. When those fruits ripen they'll be orangish yellow and big as large watermelons.


Maya country people know to harvest their papayas a little before they turn ripe because critters, especially certain birds such as woodpeckers and orioles, love to eat them. You cut the unripe fruit, store it where you can watch it, and then everyone gives his or her opinion as to the exact moment the big fruit is at its peak of perfection, and you eat it. It's a happy time for all.

In my opinion, a papaya isn't perfectly ripe until its skin begins looking almost disagreeable -- the yellow surface browning here and there, even with spots of white fungus breaking out. Well, you cut off that part and eat the perfect stuff that's left. I say "in my opinion" because I'm always astonished by how many people think that any fruit with brown spots is beyond eating. "In my opinion," fruits like papayas and bananas are at their best when brown spots begin appearing. But the advertising industry has put it into people's heads that fruit skins need to be unblemished, so what can you do?

Papayas please with much more than their mere taste, texture and appearance. Something in them sets the stomach at ease, and makes the guts smile on hot, sunny afternoons. That shouldn't surprise us, for traditional cooks have known for millennia to wrap their pigs in papaya leaves before baking them, and even our own culture has realized that papayas contain "the natural meat tenderizer" called papain. Papain is the "something" that helps our stomachs digest food.