Every October, stacks of orange orbs materialize in front of grocery stores. But if want to make pumpkin pie, bread, soup, or another culinary delight, these Jack o’ Lantern pumpkins are a trick without a treat. Their flesh tends to be tasteless, watery, and stringy, since they’ve been bred only for their size, large hollow interior, and flat bottom.
But more and more farmers and gardeners are growing delicious organic pie pumpkins and many heirloom pumpkin and squash varieties that are perfect for sweet and savory dishes. In fact, “pumpkin” is simply the common name for a winter squash with the color and shape we associate with the word. And all that canned pumpkin pie filling on grocery store shelves is actually made from the Dickinson/Libby’s Select variety of large squash. Of course, if you’re in a hurry, there’s nothing wrong with buying organic pumpkin pie filling, but it’s fun and rewarding to take the time to find your own great pumpkin or winter squash.
First Pumpkins Cultivated by First Peoples
Pumpkins have long been a source of nutrient-dense food. Fragments of pumpkin stems, seeds, and fruits were found in the cliff dweller ruins of the southwestern United States. But the earliest evidence of pumpkin cultivation is in central Mexico, where pumpkins and squashes were cultivated by Native Americans around the same time they began cultivating maize–around 9,000 years ago.
The early colonists in North America learned how to grow and cook pumpkins from the Native Americans, who often placed them in hot embers and cooked them whole before using them in soups and other dishes. They also dried strips of pumpkin flesh to make a sort of pumpkin jerky, and sometimes ground the dried pumpkin to make flour.
Hybridized descendants of the pumpkins cultivated by Native Americans were an important source of food in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the Dickinson/Libby’s Select pumpkin used in canned pie filling owes a great and generally unacknowledged debt to Native Americans. According to a history note written by Randal Oulton, “Libby’s acquired the rights to the ‘Libby’s Select Dickinson’ pumpkin in 1929 from the Dickinson family who brought it [to Illinois] in the early 1800s from Kentucky.” And you can be sure that any pumpkin from the early-1800s pumpkin had been developed over millennia by native peoples.
How to Find a Great Pumpkin
Now more and more heirloom varieties of pumpkin and winter squash are available at farmers markets and are definitely worth seeking out. To find a pumpkin that is truly a treat (with no trick), look for the opposite of the typical jack-o’-lantern pumpkin. The best ones are the small “sugar” or “pie” pumpkins (pictured at the top of this post) on the one hand, or the large “cheese pumpkins” on the other. Their colors range from the typical bright pumpkin orange, to light cream, taupe, or dark bronze.
Cheese pumpkins are named not for how they taste, but for how they look—flattened and squat, like a big round of cheese. Some have vertical pleats running from the stem end to the blossom end. Popular cheese varieties include Winter Luxury, New England Pie, Long Pie, and Cinderella.
New England Pie is the classic orange pie pumpkin. The flesh is a little drier than some of the others, but stringless, making a nice pie consistency with no need of a blender or food processor.
The Long Pie, or Nantucket Pie pumpkin looks like a long, fat zucchini, and often doesn’t turn orange until stored for weeks or months. The Burpee seed company offered it in 1888 under the name St. George. By the 1930s, it was well established in the Northeast but was gradually replaced by more uniformly colored and shaped varieties. By the 1980s it was no longer grown commercially and was thought to have been lost. But according to an account in the Fedco Seed catalog, a Maine farmer named LeRoy Souther had been growing it for over 30 years. In the late 1980s he “brought seeds to cucurbit aficionado John Navazio at his Common Ground Country Fair squash booth,” and Navazio then reintroduced the variety to growers.
Winter Luxury has a velvety flesh with an exceptionally rich, sweet taste. You can recognize it by its russeted, finely-netted soft orange-gray skin.
The Indian or Kickapoo Pumpkin is an heirloom variety that my brother Henry received from a woman who knows the chief of a local group of Native Americans. His family has grown it as long as anyone can remember. It is a large, flattened, fluted pumpkin that is a delicately mottled green/beige/orange/tan skin. It strikes you as almost too beautiful to be real, more of a carved and polished objet d‘art than a thing to carve and eat. But this object is no objet–or it is one with a dual purpose–to feed our eyes and our soul with beauty, and then to feed our body.