It’s been a celebrity year for pumpkins, despite a poor crop. Because of Hurricane Irene and other nasty bits of weather, plants incurred mold and late harvests, even when not swept away by floods. But a farm stand in Hampton, Va., was there for President Obama and the first lady when they stopped to pick up their pumpkins — a small wagonload, in fact. These included two 70-pounders, white to match their house, hoisted into the wagon by Michelle Obama.
At another notable event a pumpkin itself was the superstar. The New York Botanical Garden put on view this year’s world champion giant, grown in Quebec and weighing in at 1,818.5 pounds. You rarely get to see something like that.
It’s odd when a food crop is grown almost solely for creative display. Jack-o’-lanterns are still wildly popular, but the art of cooking with pumpkins could use a champion. The only familiar dish is pumpkin pie, which makes one holiday appearance, never to be seen again, and it usually involves a can. Few people realize that you buy or grow one kind of pumpkin for carving (easy-to-cut flesh, strong stem, flat bottom) and another for good eating. Varieties like New England Pie, Long Pie and Winter Luxury are good examples of the latter. You don’t need a PhD in pumpkinomics to know that it’s better to grow a cooking pumpkin for carving if you want your crop to have a life after Halloween. After all, few back yards have enough space to grow one variety of pumpkin, with its long, trailing vines, let alone two.
This year we grew one of the naked seed types, a variety called Kakai. The fruits are beautiful: upright ovals with dark green stripes running vertically on a golden background. I’d tried toasting pumpkin seeds in the past but couldn’t get past their hulls’ toughness, which even a simmering in water failed to cure. Kakai’s seeds, as promised, have no noticeable hulls, so you can roast them on a cookie sheet with oil and salt and get tender green pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) that are beyond delicious. Most pepitas are a little stale by the time you buy them, but these are perfect. Alas, the flesh of the pumpkin itself is not.
So next year I might grow Long Pie, an heirloom that everyone insists is the best. Shaped like a big zucchini, it would make an odd jack-o’-lantern, but I foresee pumpkin pudding, pumpkin bread and, best of all, a Haitian Creole dish, adored by my sister Anne, called Soup Joumou. It’s really a thick stew, made by simmering beef, pumpkin, hot peppers, carrots, onions, turnips, parsley, potatoes, cabbage, a little tomato sauce and broken-up pieces of spaghetti, with a generous squeeze of lime over each serving. You make it to celebrate Haiti’s independence from Napoleon’s France in 1804, on the first of the year, and because pumpkins store very well, I should still have a few by then.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”