If you want a tasty pumpkin, skip the giants

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After World War II, a Canadian grower named Howard Dill selectively developed ever-bigger generations of the Mammoth strain of pumpkin to produce the gargantuan 'Atlantic Giant.' His single-minded efforts produced a gourd that 33 years ago weighed almost 500 pounds, jaw-dropping at the time but by today's standards virtually a runt.

And yet Mr. Dill laid the genetic groundwork for today's monsters whose very weight causes them to grow misshapenly. They don't stand up in the way that a pert supermarket pumpkin does but appear instead to have been kneaded by gravity. The first one-tonner was recorded last year, a 2,009-pounder grown by a veteran pumpkineer named Ron Wallace in Rhode Island.

This year's champ came from Napa, Calif., where Tim and Susan Mathison produced a pumpkin weighing 2,032 pounds. It was on display at the New York Botanical Garden recently.

Three factors go into the production of colossal gourds: genetics, cultivation and locale. Gardeners can control the first two but not the last. The optimum pumpkin belt lies north, at least above the Mason-Dixon Line where the air is drier, the pests fewer, the nights cooler and the days longer.

For those in pursuit of the pinnacle pumpkin, everything is optimized, nothing compromised. They have to acquire the seed from a champion or near-champion pumpkin and then devote hundreds of hours between spring and fall to raise and pamper the mother vine. This includes hand-pollination of a female flower, either from a male blossom on the same vine or a second vine grown for its pollen. They would spend a small fortune on soil amendments, bio-stimulants, irrigation systems and shading structures, not counting the cost of equipment to lift and transport the fruit to weighing sites.

This quest, which extends also to tomatoes, long gourds, onions, leeks, cabbages and others, represents a form of extreme gardening that doesn't interest me as a hobbyist. For one thing, the master-servant relationship is reversed come August: The pumpkin, putting on 50 pounds a day, demands its victuals.

There's another reason, though, I wouldn't grow an 'Atlantic Giant.' You can't eat it.

Thomas Andres, a gourd expert at the New York Botanical Garden, said he once sampled a monster fruit after it was displayed at the garden. "There's no taste to it; it's full of fiber and just bad. It had very pale flesh of no nutritional value."

There are better culinary types. I am thinking of Blue Hubbard, which is big, warty and with a gray-blue rind and orange flesh, and the brilliant red-skinned Boston Marrow.

Mr. Andres said one of his favorite culinary pumpkins is an uncommon Peruvian variety named Loche, although it seems to be absent from seed catalogues in the United States.

I love the teardrop, orange-red Kuri or Red Kuri, which is just svelte enough to be grown aerially, on a trellis, where it looks superb.

Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, said some of his favorites for flavor are antique varieties from Japan, including Yokohama. With muddy-green and warty rinds redolent of toad skins, they have a grotesque beauty about them. "The flesh is very good, one of the best-tasting," he said.

Among the japonicas, his catalog also lists Black Futsu, whose dark, rumpled skin surrounds a golden flesh that reminds him of hazelnut. Another great squash from the Edo period is Japanese Pie, producing 12-pound black fruit with white flesh.

In her landmark book "The Compleat Squash," Amy Goldman commends Chirimen as a "gorgeous little squash. Very good ⅛eating⅜ quality."

Mr. Gettle says many of the Italian and French antique varieties are on par with the Japanese. In flavor, the Marina di Chioggia is as remarkable as it looks. This warty, green turban contains orange flesh that, Ms. Goldman writes "was born to be gnocchi and ravioli."

Your list of superior French varieties for next year should include Musquee de Provence, large-lobed and cheeselike in appearance and fine-flavored, and the heavily warted Galeux d'Eysines. The latter, Mr. Gettle says, has "incredibly smooth flesh" that makes it great for soups.

Among old American varieties, Winter Luxury Pie is one of the most highly regarded. Mr. Gettle likes its smooth flesh. Ms. Goldman described it as "the finest pie stock in the land."

As for the weight-shaped 'Atlantic Giant' goliaths, Mr. Andres speculates they would be less deformed if grown "in a gravity-free environment."


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