All Hail the Great Pumpkin

Cinderella pumpkins make for wonderful soups.
Cinderella pumpkins make for wonderful soups. (Istockphoto)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 26, 2006

A big red pumpkin sits on my kitchen counter, the color of the sun when it is just about to set. It lights up the whole room. About 15 inches across, with a flattened shape, its name is Rouge Vif d'Etampes, a French heirloom introduced by Burpee in 1883. I will be enjoying it long after Halloween, but right now it is part of the celebration.

What we now call Halloween was once a great pagan holiday, a Celtic harvest festival called Samhain. Although later transformed by the church and renamed All Hallows Eve, it never really lost its foothold in the pre-Christian spirit world. Falling midway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, Samhain was one of two times during the year (Beltane on May 1 being the other) when the border between the corporeal and spiritual realms became permeable. The souls of the dead were welcomed, and bonfires were lighted to ward off the Sidhe -- the mischievous denizens of Faerie.

Halloween still has a bit of magic. It's a time when children are given license to be strange and scary, to wander around at night and eat normally forbidden sweets. But it has become a thoroughly American rite, with customs widely copied in Europe and beyond. Trick-or-treating, dressing up and carving pumpkins are essentially New World touches -- that and our knack for turning anything into an industry. How much self-expression is there in donning a SpongeBob SquarePants suit? Is there anything scary about masks with the faces of leading politicians? Well, okay, maybe.

Real pumpkins, on the other hand, hold their own quite well against their plastic rivals. As native New World fruits (botanically no different from squashes), they much delighted early European settlers. The perfect harvest symbol, large and nutritious, a pumpkin keeps well and even serves as a one-pot feast. A stew made and served in a pumpkin is glorious. So is the original pumpkin "pie" in which a custard is baked inside. I recently tried this with a four-pound pumpkin, filled with cream, eggs, honey, nutmeg and vanilla. What a hit! I dished out the filling and the flesh together right at the table, straight from the shell. I notice other cooks have taken to pumpkins, too. Menus are full of pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin risotto, pumpkin soup.

How the jack-o'-lantern tradition came about is an interesting tale. Unexplained lights at night have stirred imaginations from the time of the domestication of fire to the age of the UFO. The original "Jack" was a hapless trickster who was refused entrance to both heaven and hell, left to roam the countryside with a lantern made from a hollowed-out turnip. In imitation, homemade vegetable lanterns were carried to repel night-wandering spirits. One could be made from a rutabaga, a potato, a gourd, a beet or a mangel-wurzel, but it was the turnip lantern that Irish immigrants brought to our shores. They took one look at the far more showy and carvable pumpkin, and a new custom was born.

Seed catalogues reflect the pumpkin's popularity. Johnny's Selected Seeds ( http://www.johnnyseeds.com ) says it is the company's leading crop, with three pages of varieties bred for specific uses. For big-pumpkin contests (the record is 1,502 pounds), there's the quintessential Dill's Atlantic Giant. Those meant for carving have a wide range of shapes and sizes. "Painter" pumpkins are a recent innovation driven, I suspect, by the invention of the magic marker. They're smooth and often white. (Personally, I think the whole point of a Halloween pumpkin is the power of a face lit by fire.)

Baking, or "pie" pumpkins are especially sweet and flavorful, with small inner cavities and thick, smooth, dense, non-stringy flesh. Until recently, most cooking pumpkins were tall ovals, good for several Thanksgiving pies. But recently there has been a boom in small versions such as Baby Pam and an influx of large French heirlooms such as my cherished Rouge Vif. (It means "vivid red.") Once hard to find, it's now everywhere and sometimes sold as the Cinderella pumpkin. It cheers me just to look at it, and the soups it makes are like velvet. (I roast it first in chunks for extra flavor and freeze what I don't use right away.)

Other old French favorites include the ribbed, orange-tan Musqué de Provence ("musky"), and the exotic Brodé Galeux d'Eysines ("embroidered with pebbles"), its warty exterior concealing rich orange flesh. Like any pumpkins, these should be harvested before frost, handled with care, cured in a warm place, then stored in a cool but fairly dry location. Any one of them would make a magnificent creature for Halloween. But the ones you save for eating will be the real treat.

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