This Halloween, consider this: We live in the age of the one-ton pumpkin. Maybe we should rename our favorite fall gourd the jack-o’-lighthouse. After World War II, a Canadian grower named Howard Dill selectively developed ever-bigger generations of the Mammoth strain of pumpkin to produce the gargantuan Atlantic Giant. His single-minded efforts produced a gourd that 33 years ago weighed almost 500 pounds, jaw-dropping at the time but by today’s standards virtually a runt.
And yet Dill laid the genetic groundwork for today’s monsters whose very weight causes them to grow misshapenly. They don’t stand up in the way that a pert supermarket pumpkin does but appear instead to have been kneaded by gravity. The first one-tonner was recorded last year, a 2,009-pounder grown by a veteran pumpkineer named Ron Wallace in Rhode Island.
This year, a Swiss grower, Beni Meier, produced a pumpkin weighing 2,328 pounds, but the pumpkin failed to win the world championship because it had a hole in it. One feels for Beni.
Meanwhile, the eyes of the governing body, the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, moved westward 6,000 miles to Napa, Calif., where Tim and Susan Mathison produced this year’s champ, weighing 2,032 pounds. It was on display at the New York Botanical Garden this month. A team of master carvers led by Ray Villafane left the exalted fruit untouched but formed other fruits and vegetables into deliciously ghoulish sculptures around it.
Three factors go into the production of colossal gourds: genetics, cultivation and locale. Gardeners in these parts can control the first two, but not the last. You are unlikely to find a record-beater in Washington; the optimum pumpkin belt lies farther north, at least above the Mason-Dixon Line where the air is drier, the pests fewer, the nights cooler and the days longer.
Even with these constraints, you could grow an Atlantic Giant that reached several hundred pounds, if you had the space and the time.
For those in pursuit of the pinnacle pumpkin, everything is optimized, nothing compromised. They have to acquire the seed from a champion or near-champion pumpkin and then devote hundreds of hours between spring and fall to raise and pamper the mother vine. This includes hand-pollination of a female flower, either from a male blossom on the same vine or a second vine grown for its pollen. They would spend a small fortune on soil amendments, bio-stimulants, irrigation systems and shading structures, not counting the cost of equipment to lift and transport the fruit to weighing sites.
This quest, which extends also to tomatoes, long gourds, onions, leeks, cabbages and others, represents a form of extreme gardening that doesn’t interest me as a hobbyist. For one thing, the master-servant relationship is reversed come August: The pumpkin, putting on 50 pounds a day, demands its victuals.
But I do find the enterprise admirable in that these perfectionists are consumed by the same sorts of things that make for all good gardeners. They are driven to find the right site, improve the soil, pick a good variety and then observe it as it grows so they can attend to its needs. For most of us, the payoff isn’t fame but the satisfaction and pride of raising your own.
There’s another reason, though, I wouldn’t grow an Atlantic Giant. You can’t eat it.
Thomas Andres, a gourd expert at the New York Botanical Garden, said he once sampled a monster fruit after it was displayed at the garden. “There’s no taste to it; it’s full of fiber and just bad. It had very pale flesh of no nutritional value.”
As an aside, pumpkins, squash and gourds are unscientific labels that gardeners apply to what are, more accurately, fruiting cucurbits of a handful of species. Varieties of Cucurbita maxima, and especially Atlantic Giant, form the largest fruit in the plant kingdom.
Several pie and soup pumpkins and gourds also make for a fine Halloween display, including the squat, red Rouge Vif d’Etampes and the classic Connecticut Field pumpkin.
But there are better culinary types, and while they don’t follow the traditional jack-o’-lantern form, they have an honest beauty to them. I am thinking of Blue Hubbard, which is big, warty and with a gray-blue rind and orange flesh, and the brilliant red-skinned Boston Marrow.
Andres said one of his favorite culinary pumpkins is an uncommon Peruvian variety named Loche, though it seems to be absent from seed catalogues in the United States.
I love the teardrop, orange-red Kuri or Red Kuri, which is just svelte enough to be grown aerially, on a trellis, where it looks superb.
Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, said some of his favorites for flavor are antique varieties from Japan, including Yokohama. With muddy-green and warty rinds redolent of toad skins, they have a grotesque beauty about them. “The flesh is very good, one of the best-tasting,” he said.
Among the japonicas, his catalogue also lists Black Futsu, whose dark, rumpled skin surrounds a golden flesh that reminds him of hazelnut. (Sometimes spelled Futtsu, it’s on my list of varieties to try in 2014.) Another great squash from the Edo period is Japanese Pie, producing 12-pound black fruit with white flesh.
In her landmark book “The Compleat Squash,” Amy Goldman commends Chirimen as a “gorgeous little squash. Very good [eating] quality.”
Gettle says many of the Italian and French antique varieties are on par with the Japanese. In flavor, the Marina di Chioggia is as remarkable as it looks. This warty, green turban contains orange flesh that, Goldman writes, “was born to be gnocchi and ravioli.”
Your list of superior French varieties for next year should include Musquee de Provence, large-lobed and cheeselike in appearance and fine-flavored, and the heavily warted Galeux d’Eysines. The latter, Gettle says, has “incredibly smooth flesh” that makes it great for soups.
Among old American varieties, Winter Luxury Pie is one of the most highly regarded. Gettle likes its smooth flesh. Goldman described it as “the finest pie stock in the land.”
One is tempted to leave the carving knife in its drawer, and assemble these beauties together as both a form of Halloween decoration and education. Come All Souls Day, stick them in the kitchen.
As for the weight-shaped Atlantic Giant goliaths, Andres speculates they would be less deformed if grown “in a gravity-free environment.”
One day, perhaps, they will grow beautifully spherical, one-ton pumpkins in space. An astronaut or two could climb in and return to Earth aboard the ultimate seed capsule.
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