A Pumpkin Story

If you have watched a pumpkin seed grow into a pumpkin, my story will be familiar. Today, few see farm plants grow. For many, the grocery produce section is their closest encounter with edible whole plants.  

For most of the year, the produce section displays the usual items with little variation. Then comes October when the produce section gets pushed back a bit to make room for stacks of pumpkins. If these October pumpkins are the extent of your pumpkin experience then you have missed a few interesting facts about these amazing plants.  As a teaser, let me suggest that should famine strike the land, we could probably survive just fine by planting a couple of pumpkin seeds.

My pumpkin story begins in childhood with the tasty pumpkin dishes my mother made.  A favorite was baked pieces of pumpkin with a little sunflower oil.  Today I would choose olive oil but back then sunflower oil was what was available.  Another favorite was rice porridge with pumpkin.  The recipe began with regular white rice, with milk and lots of pumpkin diced in 1-2 inch chunks.  These ingredients were then simmered slowly in a cast iron Dutch oven.  After the rice was tender, all milk was absorbed, and the pumpkin became soft, butter was stirred in until it dissolved into the rice and milk.  The final mixture took on a bright golden color with the sweetness of rice pudding.  Often in the fall, it was the whole dinner.

Along with college, marriage and beginning a medical practice, pumpkins disappeared from my life except for the sight of a carved pumpkin in the fall or an occasionally over sweetened pumpkin pie at a covered dish event. It seemed that no one ate pumpkins for their nutrition as a whole plant food.  By all appearances, pumpkins had fallen from grace as a vegetable for the dinner table.

In fairness, many pumpkin varieties grown for decoration are quite colorful but near tasteless and require culinary creativity to be edible.  Perhaps the absence of tastier pumpkins in stores has been their demise as a food of choice.  Interestingly, all pumpkin varieties are edible if you have an urge for a creative cooking opportunity.

By chance, a few years ago, pumpkins came back into my life. As part of trying new locations for a Saturday morning walk, I announced a walk on Green Mountain. It was just after Thanksgiving and the park was still decorated for fall with pumpkins around the parking lot. While waiting for others to arrive, a park employee mentioned the need for people to take a pumpkin home. With childhood memories of tasty pumpkin dishes, the idea was appealing. At home, that pumpkin became pumpkin soup. The inedible remnants were composted for the backyard vegetable garden.

In the spring, dozens of pumpkins sprouted in the compost pile. Given that this was happening in the far corner of the yard and out of the way of gardening, it seemed harmless.  Especially curious and somewhat entertaining was the speed of growth.  When the longest vine was halfway to the house it became something of a yard management concern. With mentoring, the vines were redirected and remained contained in about one-fourth of the backyard. One vine snuck over the back fence and climbed a neighbor’s tree. Amazingly, pumpkin vines really climb trees. You may wonder, what happens to a pumpkin when it finally ripens and drops 20 feet to the ground, as all climbing pumpkins eventually do. Well, it does everything you would imagine and it’s not a pretty sight. No doubt this climbing trick is the pinnacle of achievement for a pumpkin in its quest to spread seeds.  

By end of the season, we had grown twelve pumpkins. Some we ate and some went home with friends along with assurances they could become a delightful food if properly prepared.

Once again, as pumpkins were eaten, the remnants again went into the compost pile.  As you are perhaps anticipating, the saying “If you don’t learn from mistakes you will repeat them” turned out to be true.  The following spring we witnessed hundreds of pumpkin sprouts popping up in the compost pile.  Again, like proud parents, we admired our cute sprouts. As you may have guessed (which we didn’t) pumpkin management grew into an ever bigger part of our life.  On the plus side, there was far less grass to mow. As for the pumpkin that smashed in the neighbor’s yard, it seems the squirrels foiled the pumpkin’s plan by eating all of the seeds.

By the following year, we were battle-hardened and knew what to do with pumpkin sprouts.  When a sprout showed up it was plucked.  For a while, it seemed we were free of pumpkins.  However, in late April, two incognito volunteer sprouts popped up on the cucumber row.  For a few weeks, they were dismissed as fallen cucumber seeds from the previous season.  It’s an easy mistake given that pumpkins are related to cucumbers and, as sprouts, are almost indistinguishable. As they grew beyond 20 feet in length it became clear these were not cucumbers.  Indeed, one was a volunteer pumpkin. The other sprout turned out to be a volunteer butternut squash.

Both sprouts survived and prospered through the Spring, Summer, and Fall. As of October, we had produced about 30 pumpkins (from one seed) and about 40 medium to large butternut squash (from one seed). In total, the two sprouts produced 600-800 pounds of food despite a summer drought.  For survivalist, looking for a simple food strategy, keep a couple of pumpkin seeds and butternut squash seeds in a safe place.  It’s not the perfect diet, but no one would starve.  Perhaps a trained survivalist could offer a better choice of survival seeds for Huntsville’s clay-like soil.

            Interestingly, both butternut squash and pumpkins do very well in full sun and partial sun. As for what to do with them, both butternut squash and pumpkins are nutritious whole foods. Butternut squash keeps nicely, often till the following spring. Pumpkins don’t keep as long and are best eaten within a few months after being picked.  However, the pumpkin seeds can be dried and stored for extended periods of time.

            For amateur backyard gardeners, almost anything that grows can be a delightful and entertaining surprise.  Perhaps you have a gardening story to share?  I would be delighted to hear your story on the next walk by the lakes.

            Nancy Neighbors, MD

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How To Peel a Butternut Squash

            Peeling a butternut squash can be challenging.  Fortunately, for small butternut squashes, you don’t necessarily need to peel them.  When cooked, the peel is tasty and adds a nutrition boost.  Larger butternut squashes can also be eaten unpeeled but need to be cooked longer.  In essence, roast any squash long enough and the skin will be tender enough to eat.

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Butternut Squash

            If you choose to peel a butternut squash, be careful since they are awkward to hold with one hand while cutting into them with a knife held in the other hand.  To make peeling easier, cut a small portion off of the ends and then microwave the butternut squash for 2-3 minutes.  After cooling enough to touch, use a vegetable peeler to easily remove the peel.

            For an impressive autumn-inspired dish that can be served as a main course, try Vegan Wild-Rice-Stuffed Butternut Squash.  For this recipe, there is no need to peel the butternut squash.

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Winter Squash Facts

            Butternut squash belongs to a family of squash called winter squash that all have hard skin.  If stored in a cool dry place, their hard skin helps preserve them.  Under the best conditions, they can store well over winter until the following spring. 

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An Assortment of Winter Squashes

            Varieties of squash that share this characteristic include acorn, buttercup, butternut, calabaza, delicata, Hubbard, spaghetti, sweet dumpling, and Turban.  If you aren’t familiar with the many varieties of winter squash and would like to learn more, click here.  No doubt you have noticed some of them in the produce section of the grocery store.  Unfortunately, many use these squash as seasonal decorations rather than nutritious food. Of course, with planning, they can serve both purposes.

Pumpkin Facts

  • Pumpkin has a flavor similar to sweet potatoes. Most varieties are delicious with a slight sweetness.  If weight loss is on your agenda then consider swapping white potatoes for lower-calorie pumpkin. Pumpkins also have plenty of fiber to help you feel satisfied longer. Compared with bananas, pumpkins have about one-third the calories. One warning, put pumpkins in a pie with nuts and sugar and the calorie count will skyrocket.
  • Pumpkins, like most yellow vegetables, contain high levels of beta-carotene.  In our body, beta-carotene converts to vitamin A which helps to prevent free radical damage to cells in all parts of the body – especially in hair, nails, and skin.  Pumpkin seeds also contain high levels of natural antioxidants along with polyunsaturated fatty acids and protein.  One cup of cubed pumpkin provides the daily-recommended amount of vitamin A. Pumpkin also provides fiber, protein, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B-1 (Thiamine), vitamin B-2 (Riboflavin), vitamin B-3 (Niacin), vitamin B-5 (Pantothenic acid), vitamin B-6 (Pyridoxine), vitamin B-9 (Folic acid), potassium, copper, manganese, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.
  • The antioxidants in pumpkin have a protective effect on the heart and blood vessels. The fiber in the pumpkin flesh and pumpkin seeds can help lower cholesterol.
  • Like most orange vegetables, pumpkins can be a delicious base for stews, soups, and roasted dishes with peppers, red onions or beets.
  • Pumpkins are indigenous to Central America and probably made their way into Europe and the rest of the world by way of the French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1584.
  • A typical backyard pumpkin might weigh 10-20 pounds.  If you want to be competitive in growing the world’s biggest pumpkin, you will have to aim higher.  In world competition, you would need a pumpkin weighing over 2600 pounds to win.
  • The tradition of carving faces into vegetables dates to the Celts. As part of their autumnal celebration, they wanted to light the way to their homes for the good spirits, so they carved faces into vegetables such as turnips and squash. A light was then placed within the hollowed out vegetable.  The Irish are credited with bringing the tradition of carving vegetables to America. As you might suspect, the original Jack O’Lantern was probably not a pumpkin.
  • Children are fascinated by Cinderella and the magic pumpkin. To keep the idea alive, Harry Potter gave the pumpkin mystique a booster shot.  If a millennial, you may be thinking more along about the musical group Smashing Pumpkins (if music is the right word). To be sure, pumpkins have invaded the English language. “My little pumpkin” is an endearment in English, Portuguese and perhaps other languages.

Published by Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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