Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Jack-O-Lanterns & Pumpkin Pie

Imagine yourself back to another time and place. Long ago in continental Europe parents who wanted to provide their children with Jack-O-Lanterns for Halloween had to grow a turnip patch. These were not the average tender turnips we are used to finding in the market or pulling fresh from our kitchen gardens. Oh no, these were giant turnips of the sort that, in today’s world, might win an award at the county fair. Keep imagining, folks. If you look forward to cleaning out a pumpkin with as much enthusiasm as you would putting your arm into a bucket of slime, think for a moment of those medieval European parents. Not only did they have to grow award-winning turnips; those solid roots had to be carefully hollowed out before they could be carved.

Of course we all know what happened next. Our buddy Christopher Columbus and his comrades got lost and made the sobering discovery that the European’s of that day were not as advanced agriculturally as they imagined. And much like teenagers, who discover unattended pumpkins in the wee hours after Halloween, they began bashing everything to smithereens. Well, every gardener knows what happens when you bash pumpkins. The slippery seeds hiding inside spew forth and spread about. And they have been spreading ever since.

Pumpkins, in fact, began spreading from their sites of origin thousands of years ago. Native Gardeners in Central and South America painstakingly developed pumpkins and other winter squash from wild edible seeded gourds. And, as gardeners do everywhere, they shared and traded seeds of their successful selections with neighbors as well as the traveling seed dealers of the day. By the time our buddy Christopher reached our shores, pumpkins had been bred and selected into myriad sizes and forms. Many Native communities grew several kinds of pumpkins, which in some cases were distinct from the pumpkins grown in the next village. Now that those slippery pumpkin seeds have traveled around the world we have varieties available to grow in our home gardens that have been further selected and bred in places like France and Italy. However, I don’t think we should forget where pumpkins got there start. Nor should we forget the unique Native contribution to the world wide celebration of Halloween.

Besides, who ever heard of turnip pie? Can you even imagine? Pumpkins are actually very versatile in the kitchen. Not only do they make sumptuous pie, cakes, breads, cookies, and pudding; they can be used in a number of other ways. Pumpkin puree makes a flavorful base for a number of savory soups traditional to our Northeast Tribes. Pumpkin can be steamed or baked and served as a vegetable, just like any other winter squash. It is equally good with salt and pepper or brown sugar and cinnamon. Last year, I even found a recipe for pumpkin pickles. I had to give them a try. They turned out really colorful and yummy. And then there is spicy sweet pumpkin butter, which makes a glorious fragrant toasted bagel spread for fall and winter brunches.

The versatile and tasty pumpkin also delivers important nutrition. It is high in soluble fiber – which has been found to be important in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels as well as healthy colon function. Pumpkin is also high in beta-carotene, anti-oxidants, and they area good source of potassium and vitamin C. Tasty and nutritious, what else can we ask for? But wait, there’s more. Whatever you do, don’t throw the seeds away, when you carve or cook your pumpkin.

Right now there is a lot of interest in the beneficial and medicinal properties of pumpkin seeds. They are high in good quality protein and the essential fatty acids necessary for proper brain development and health. They are high in the Omega complex; their oil is often included in vegetarian supplements of Omega 3, which is considered important to heart health. And if this weren’t enough, they are a good source of B complex and they are also being researched for their prostate health possibilities. Pumpkin seeds can be roasted and eaten or used in recipes like nuts. They can also be ground, and find their way into a variety of dishes from baked goods to mole’ sauce.

And then there are the pumpkin flowers. The male flowers – the ones that don’t have the tiny glimmer of a baby pumpkin under the bloom, are a tasty gourmet treat. They can be added to salads before (or after) they open. The barely opened or just closing blossoms can be carefully stuffed and baked, with either a sweet or savory filling. Add it up; one easy to grow plant with a tropical appeal provides you with three versatile foods and Jack-O-Lanterns too. As tasty as Mr. Turnip is, I just don’t think he can compete.

Pumpkins in the Garden

Pumpkins, when well cared for, make large attractive vines. They can be tucked into the landscaping, grown out in fields, or allowed to ramble along the edge of the garden. Just remember, large fruited pumpkins need room to spread. The small fruited pumpkins need room too, but they can spread or climb.

You don’t have to hire a rototiller to grow a few pumpkin plants. A sunny spot, adequate summer irrigation, and a well prepared planting hole will do. Start by digging a hole between 12 and 18 inches deep and 8 or so inches across. If you hit gravel before you get that deep, just compensate by making a broader planting hole. Pumpkins like soil that has been amended with lots of organic matter. Layer eight inches or so of whatever is available into the bottom of your planting hole. Cover this with at least four inches of soil mixed with compost, leaf mould, or processed planting mix. Now you are ready to plant your seeds or starts.

As the weather warms, most nurseries will stock a variety of young pumpkin plants and seeds. It is fun to grow a few different kinds side by side and then save their seed for the following year. Generally speaking, the plants you get from saved seed don’t vary much from their parents. But once in a while you get surprising crosses, which adds to the excitement of gardening, especially for children.

For more information and recipes ask your book store or librarian to order: “Nutrition Secrets of the Ancients,” by Dr. Gene Spiller and Rowena Hubbard, Prima Publishing; “Cooking with Spirit – North American Indian Food and Fact,” by Darcy Williamson and Lisa Railsback, Maverick Publications; and / or “Foods That Harm, Foods That Heal,” by Readers Digest.

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, 1,105 Words
Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, May 9, 2006
Posted here with permission

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