Nothing says fall like pumpkin picking on a crisp autumn day. The gourds are the decorative symbol of Halloween and Thanksgiving, but the historical wintertime importance of pumpkins is often overlooked. Where do they—or better yet—where should they all go after picking season ends?
Pumpkins—also known as winter squash—are a traditional crop for the North and South forks. Pumpkins were an important food source for pilgrims and Native Americans and not having enough stored could mean a very lean winter. The nutritional value of pumpkins is often overlooked by pumpkin pickers, but not by some purists who would like to see a return to the more traditional use of pumpkins as a wintertime food store.
“I think in the U.S. in general, squash is one of those things that surprises me because we don’t value its nutritional value as much as we should,” says Keith Luce, chef and owner of the Square in Greenport whose family also owns a 10-acre hog farm in Jamesport. “Think about it, they’re relegated to decorations or pie.”
But consumers demand the decorative varieties. Jack-o’-Lanterns, Atlantic Giant, Prizewinners, Howden and Jack-Be-Little are among the standard carving pumpkins. The meat is stringy, watery and not very conducive to cooking, but many local farms grow other varieties that are great for baking.
The musque de Provence, also known as the fairytale pumpkin, originated in France. It is deeply ribbed, very hard and starts off a green color, becoming more of a mahogany as it ripens. The flesh is mildly sweet, dry and hard. The Long Island cheese pumpkin is another common squash grown locally. It is short, fat and looks like a wheel of cheese. Both have dark-orange flesh and are sweet and perfect for baking.
The long shelf life of these two varieties is what made them so valuable to Native Americans and early settlers. If stored properly, the squash sometimes last a whole year, meaning fresh pumpkin pie, bread and soup throughout the winter.
Liz and David Wines of Ty Llwyd Farm on Sound Avenue in Riverhead have farmed their 40 acres for 40 years. Each year they dedicate a quarter of an acre to pumpkins, and much of what they grow are the musques de Provence and Long Island cheese.
“I never use orange ones for baking; Long Island cheese pumpkins, they’re the best for baking,” Ms. Wines says in her Welsh accent while ringing up customers at her outdoor farm stand. “Pilgrims stored them and took them out when they needed them. Don’t let them freeze—that’s the main thing—and keep them in a dry place. A good healthy pumpkin will last a while.”
Local chefs also know pumpkin season lasts long after the fall. At his Bridgehampton restaurant Fresh Hamptons, chef Todd Jacobs is accompanying the root vegetables on his winter menu with a few pumpkiny twists.
“There’s a variety Dale [Haubrich] grew over at Bette and Dale’s eco farm; it’s similar to Long Island cheese. It’s a drier variety and great for pie,” says Jacobs. “We have a pumpkin Napoleon on the menu; it’s a pumpkin flavored custard—like a crème brûlée—layered between filo dough with a bourbon caramel sauce drizzled on the plate.”
Jacobs also has a vegetable side dish where he roasts the pumpkin meat with curried butternut squash and onion. Add the pumpkin soup on the menu, and he is going through more than 40 pounds of pumpkin a week. As long as the 400 pounds of pumpkin Haubrich has on hand lasts, Jacobs hopes to serve pumpkin through January, possibly longer.
In Water Mill, Hank Kraszewski, owner of Hank’s Pumpkintown, has one of the largest pumpkin operations on the East End. He and his wife, Lynne, started selling a few pumpkins out of the back of a pickup in the early 1980s. Now they plant 48 acres of pumpkins, still just a small percentage of the family’s overall crop.
The Kraszewskis plant two varieties that are pretty and also good for baking: white pumpkins and a very special variety called Porcelain Doll. The Porcelain Doll pink pumpkin seed can only be bought by donating a portion of the proceeds to breast cancer research. Ms. Kraszewski had a scare with a benign tumor last year, which raised the couple’s awareness. For the family farm, growing the blush-colored pumpkins was a no brainer.
“When I heard about it I wanted the seed, to get the seed you have to donate a percentage to breast cancer,” Mr. Kraszewski says. “Lynne said give them double what they want.”
For the larger operations like Hank’s Pumpkintown and Harbes Family Farm, the leftover pumpkins are dealt with on an industrial scale. Ed Harbes Sr. grows 40 acres of pumpkin on the North Fork, from Riverhead to Mattituck.
“We have some neighbors that have livestock, pigs and such, and they often look forward to any extra pumpkins that we have because, as I understand, it’s pretty nutritious for them,” Harbes says. “One neighbor said that the pumpkins were like a natural antibiotic, I don’t know if there’s any truth to it, but if it works, it’s good.”
If there is truth to the medicinal quality of pumpkins, then Luce’s pigs in Jamesport should be pretty healthy. He has 60 head of Mangalitsa hogs that can eat approximately 300 pounds of pumpkin a day.
At Ty Llwyd the rotten pumpkins get thrown to the chickens. “Chickens are a good garbage disposal unit,” Ms. Wines says. “Nothing gets wasted here.”
But only so many can be fed to animals and baked. Farmers use tractors to disc excess pumpkins into the earth. “The disc cuts the pumpkins into smaller pieces. All the organic matter goes into the soil, and the organic matter is useful for future growing seasons,” says Harbes, adding, “but we would much rather sell them to happy consumers though.”