The golden-orange orbs with gnarly, spiny caps are coming! Soon they shall appear on porches, stair steps, decks, and sidewalks. They come short and plump, tall and curious, or just plain round and ribbed—ready for autumnal festivities.
Europeans, however, were not introduced to pumpkins (or winter squash, tomatoes, potatoes, maize, sunflower seeds, and several other foods) until their arrival on the American continents. While some of these crops were adopted readily, like corn, others were given a more hesitant welcome. Pumpkins, for instance, were mistrusted by recent immigrant farmers well into the 1800’s, who deemed them fit for feeding pigs but not for humans.
My grandfather remembers raising pumpkins for the hogs down on his family’s farm in central Illinois. When it was planting time, his dad would throw pumpkin seeds in the horse-drawn corn seeder amongst the yellow kernels. Those pumpkin vines would crawl around amidst the corn stalks, and just before harvesting time, it was Grandpa’s job to wade through the dry cornfield and throw ripe pumpkins on the hay wagon to save up for winter hog feed. The family, however, enjoyed their good old-fashioned pumpkin pie as well.
A lady once told me of an incident when she gave a pumpkin to a neighbor friend who had recently moved out to the country. She offered the vegetable as a gift, telling the neighbor that it could be made into pumpkin pie. The newcomer was delighted, saying how much she loved an autumn treat, but the pleasure turned awry when the gardener received a worried phone call.
“Ma’am, I think there is something wrong with the pumpkin you gave me.”
“Oh, what’s the matter?”
“Well, when I cut it open, it’s all stringy inside, and there are seeds.”
The neighbor had never fixed a pumpkin before and had supposed that the inside would naturally look like what comes from a can…time for a lesson in homestead cooking.
But pumpkins can be more than pie, bread, or other treats. The tradition of carving vegetables dates to ancient times in Celtic countries, where the material of choice was large turnips set with small candles inside. The glowing ghoulish faces added spark to the festivities that marked the coming of the dark time of the year.
If you have ever made a valiant attempt to carve out a turnip, however, you will know that a pumpkin is a breeze in comparison. Saw around the stem in an arch big enough to fit your fist into, pull it off, scoop around with a sturdy spoon, hoist out the stringy center with seeds (that can be roasted, yum!), and what remains is a fragrant cavern surrounded by thick, sturdy flesh.
I love carving pumpkins. Traditional faces still are fun, but even better is letting the imagination run free by carving dragons, headless horsemen, puppy dog faces, or arched-back cats. Almost any idea can be carved into a pumpkin, with the holes acting like the pieces of stained glass in a window—it is a play between light and substance, form and sculpture.
Curious to learn more about pumpkin carving? I’ll be hosting a Master Class on October 27th at Farmstead Creamery & Café. Give us a shout if you think that getting elbow-deep in pumpkin fun is your kind of adventure! There will likely be some pumpkin treats at hand as well.
Pumpkins (or punkins, if you want to use a rural accent) have a way of getting around. Perhaps this is because our pigs get to enjoy some of them, but invariably by midsummer, pumpkin vines are sprouting from unnoticed corners of the garden, out of the compost pile, or vining their way past the beehives. Kelli, a former intern and farm groupie who often accompanies me at the farmer’s market, showed me a picture of a pumpkin vine growing in the middle of her driveway!
“I tried to hurl the half-rotten thing across the yard to the woods, but I missed. It went splut right there, and this spring it decided to grow!”
With all this discussion of pumpkins, how about fixing some for supper! Here is a recipe we shared with our CSA members and have been fixing at the Café. A real pie pumpkin (like the variety Sugar Pie) will cook up much better than any carving kind.
Pie Pumpkin and Potato Gnocchi
(said “nockey,” these are little dumplings originally from Italy)
1 pie pumpkin (recipe takes 1 cup finished pumpkin)
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1 3/4 cup flour
Sage leaves and butter
Prepare and bake pie pumpkin as you would any winter squash (cut in half, seeds removed, face down in a pan of water baked at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour).
In a saucepan over medium heat, bring potatoes and enough water to cover to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes until potatoes are very tender. Drain well.
In a bowl using a potato masher, mash potatoes until very smooth. Add 1 cup pumpkin, salt, nutmeg, and mash until blended. Using a spoon, stir in flour until the dough almost holds together. With your hands, gently press dough into a ball. Divide in half.
On a floured surface with floured hands, gently knead each ball into a smooth, soft dough. Divide each into 6 pieces. Roll each piece into a rope about 3/4 inch thick in diameter. Cut rope crosswise into 1-inch pieces (gnocchi). Place gnocchi in a lightly floured pan. Repeat until all the dough is gnocchi.
In a saucepan, over high heat, bring 4 quarts water to a boil. Transfer gnocchi individually (using 1/3 of them per batch) to the boiling water. As soon as they float, carefully remove with a slotted spoon. Blot spoon with paper towel and place gnocchi on a platter. Repeat. Serve with melted butter infused with chopped sage.
Pumpkins are a wonderful way to add a bit of autumnal festiveness to your home or celebrations. They won’t take up space in your closet; they are 100% compostable, gluten free, and vegan! And if you happen to be looking for one more commendable aspect to a pumpkin, there just might be a hungry hog out there somewhere who would be willing to call it supper. See you down at the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com