Growing up in the “Casserole Corridor” amidst the strip malls of suburban Long Island, I never imagined I would dine on locally-grown vegetables and farm-raised chicken as an adult. “The Island” was simply not the destination for a food culture. Certainly, there was always a food court within minutes, but the concept of food culture was quite foreign. As for “heirloom crops,” who knew the meaning of the term?
Indeed, that is changing, but I was still surprised on a recent visit to Restoration Farm to see “Long Island’s Own Cheese Pumpkin” listed as one of the selections on the chalk board. There on the table was a spread of some hefty, buff-colored gourds. There was much speculation among members at the distribution tent. Is it decorative? Is it for cooking?
I carry home an eight-pound pumpkin, and quickly get to work on my research. Good Grief, Charlie Brown! It turns out the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin is indeed an heirloom crop that hails from my native soil – and is considered the preferred pumpkin for pie. So what’s with the reference to cheese? It is named so because it resembles a flat wheel of cheese in shape, color and texture.
The cheese pumpkin – a variety of Cucurbita moschata squash – was widely available from the 1800s to the 1960s before it became scarce. According to the Long Island Seed Project, a Long Island seed saver named Ken Ettlinger is credited with the renaissance of the cheese pumpkin and its link to Long Island. The Long Island Seed Project offers this anecdote published in 2005 in the magazine, Edible East End:
“In the late-1970s when Mr. Ettlinger noticed that the pumpkin was becoming less common in catalogues, he began growing it from fruit he bought at East End farmstands where farmers had begun to save their own seeds. He sold the seed as the “Long Island Cheese Pumpkin” through the now-defunct Long Island Seed Company. Before long, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, and other catalogues began listing the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin as “an East Coast heirloom long remembered as a great pie squash by people in the New York and New Jersey areas.” Growing up on the Island in the 1950s, Mr. Ettlinger recalled hitting the farmstands just before Thanksgiving. “My family would always go to a farm and pick up a cheese pumpkin so Mom could make the pie,” he said. “If you talk to old timers, if you want to make pumpkin pie you use cheese pumpkin.”
The pies will certainly be made in the weeks to come, but what to do with that abundance of puree, from eight pounds of roly-poly cheese pumpkin? How about making some pumpkin cupcakes with cream cheese frosting for family birthday celebrations, and just to spread a little seasonal good cheer in the office?
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