Stop Chasing the “It” Pumpkin
One man’s brave stance against pricey heirloom gourds fouling up fall.
My fellow Halloweenites, now is the time for your tears for there are 27 different varieties of pumpkin available at Whole Foods this year.
Linus, the blanket-toting Peanuts tot, had it right when he said, "There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin."
Pumpkins, you see, carry meaning. These swollen orange gourds are the central totems of America’s weird secular autumn holiday. We stick knives into their thick skin. We carve skeletal faces into their meat. We touch pumpkin guts, and they—in some weird transmogrification of goo, sinew, and seed—touch ours.
It was, until recently, all so complicated and yet so simple. You picked up a pumpkin cheaply from a patch or the market, and it cost you no more than a few dollars to participate in this seasonal ritual. But now, friends, neighbors, and pumpkin heads, we are on the verge of screwing the whole thing up. I am not violating Linus’ rule, because this is not a discussion of the Great Pumpkin, an ethereal idea akin to Santa Claus, Moby Dick, and Godot, something to be waited for, a struggle with faith. (I wish Charles Schultz had left behind three strips to be published after his death: Charlie Brown kisses the little red-haired girl; Lucy lets him kick the football; the Great Pumpkin comes.)
This is simply an ode to the lowly pumpkin and as savage an attack as I can muster against those destroying one of the few remnants of an uncomplicated world.
A visit to the market will bring you face to face with an untold number of fancy pumpkins. There’s the Marina Di Chioggia varietal (knobby skin, sea urchin-esque), the Musquée de Provence (deeply ribbed, mahogany), the Valenciano (pale, extra stringy), and the Queensland Blue (buttercup-shaped). Interlopers! Invaders!
Got $50? You can have the “Big Mac.” That’s right, a pumpkin carrying the same name as a fast-food hamburger. Good job, gourmet gourd marketing team!
Worse are the food “journalists” jumping on board. A Colorado news station recently ran a segment about pumpkins, extolling the virtues of the “Sugar” or “Pie” pumpkin. “The best variety for baking is the small pie type, since it has a thin skin and sweet, less grainy flesh than other types,” their gardening correspondent claimed, as if it was an obvious fact that you need a special pumpkin to make pie. Don’t forget the rhapsodic decorating articles singing the praises of these unusual pumpkins—their higher price points pay dividends in one-upping the neighbors in terms of autumnal mis en scene prowess, apparently.
Why is this bad?
Look, I’m like you. I like heirloom things. Tomatoes, especially, I get. These geometrically challenged lumps of native flesh, which nobody had heard of before about 1999, were a welcome antidote to the factory farm tomato—a baseball-hard, mealy agribusiness product that had taken all the love away from something that used to be a treat. Heirloom tomatoes, genetically diverse, beautiful in a salad, are necessary. They are delicious mutts.
But there was nothing wrong with pumpkins! The bastards, whoever they are, who are stocking the shelves of every country-style market with Porcelain Doll Pinks, and Lumina Whites, are simply trying to pry more moolah from the grips of good-hearted locavores who assume that anything vegetally unusual must be special, and that they ought to support a farm somewhere on the other side of the state where we’d all live if we were truly good people and could let go of urban sins like hourly yoga class options, mass transit, and hordes of pretty people to ogle.
Before it got jammed up against “tomato,” the word “heirloom” used to mean a piece of jewelry or something else valuable that was passed down through the generations of a family. My family, scattered and weird, had few such items although we did, now I realize in retrospect, actually have one “heirloom” food item. It was an heirloom canister of Pantry Pride red pepper flakes that we moved from New Jersey to California with us and kept in various Salkin pantries for about a decade. (It was passed on to me when I went to college.) If I still had it, I’d shake some onto a roasting pumpkin to add some mellowed heat. But pumpkins aren’t jewels. They are ugly, cheap, and as disposable as the red pepper flakes should have been if my family had known anything about refreshing the spice cabinet annually.
I will give a pass to my brethren, the home cook, who intends to roast a pumpkin and serve it in a simple way so a unique flavor and texture comes through. The Ghost White pumpkin yields a custard-like texture. The Jarrahdale conjures the nuttiness of an acorn squash. Clean, roast, salt, and serve. But this market is a small one. Who do you know who has eaten a pumpkin lately in any form other than pie?
I love, I luuuurvvve, pumpkin pie. And I do firmly believe that it tastes far better if made from a pumpkin you roast yourself rather than from canned pumpkin. This is entirely due to fresh pumpkin lacking that tin taste and retaining a more vegetal quality: You can taste its squashiness—but just barely. A pumpkin pie is only about 30 percent pumpkin at best. The rest is condensed milk, sugar, eggs, and crust, the pumpkin essence further obliterated by whipped cream. Any pumpkin works great. There is no such thing as “a carving pumpkin” as opposed to “an eating pumpkin.” In fact, the taste of your pie will be far more determined by the quality of cream you use in the whipping than the kind of pumpkin you use in the baking. For that, you don’t need your Sugar pumpkins, your La Estrellas, Old Zebs, Snack Jacks, Cinderellas, or Mini-Tigers.
These varietals remind me of “Indian Corn,” the multicolored ears some people nail to their front doors in some kind of fall harvest display. Let me ask you this: Do you think Native Americans wasted a lot of corn nailing it to their dwellings? No. Out in the High Plains of this great and plentiful land in times gone by, they didn’t have $100 pumpkins grown in individual Frankenstein face molds so that they matured into monsters.
So, Halloween blasphemers, take your Blue Dolls and your Wee-Be-Littles out to a quiet place with your $44 Madame Alexander brand deluxe Linus figure in “traditional red and black striped shirt, black shorts and a blue blanket” and await the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. I’m sure you and your $145 in fall merchandise will enjoy yourselves. Bring a cashmere throw to stay warm. I hope the Great Pumpkin comes this year. I really do.