I'm a devotee of pumpkins and squashes—so much so that my house is a shrine to the almighty Cucurbita. Mammoth pumpkins greet me at the front door in October. Pumpkins and ornamental gourds adorn the mantel and line the hallways. Plates of drying seeds for next year's crop are scattered throughout the house. Bronze sculptures and photographs of my prizewinners form a portrait gallery, a veritable who's who of the squashes in my life. In my basement storehouse lie hundreds of them, awaiting preparation: Pumpkin is, of course, always on the menu.
Squashes are the edible members of any of the five domesticated species of Cucurbita, a New World genus that consists of 12 or 13 species or species groups. Pumpkins are simply edible round-fruited squashes, and can have orange, white, green, brown, or blue rinds, with ribs, grooves, stripes, or mottled color patterns. I love pumpkins and squashes mainly for their good looks, secondarily for their good carbs.
My "cucurbit craze" started 15 years ago when I became enraptured by the sight of blue 'Triamble' and bumpy red 'Warren' while on a trip to New Zealand and Australia. The varieties that are ubiquitous in America—the familiar orange pie and field pumpkins grown for Halloween and Thanksgiving, as well as the Acorns and Butternuts (often harvested when immature and tasteless)—don't begin to describe the world of squash. There are squashes that look like talking heads, cavorting sea lions, or even confetti effervescing; others that taste like candied chestnuts, have titillating "naked" seeds (hull-less seeds that can be eaten raw), or are reminiscent of milk chocolate. These are remarkable heirlooms.
Winter Keepers and Warm Weather Winners
Winter Keepers Winter squashes of Cucurbita maxima generally have the best flavor and consistency. Although Hubbards and Buttercups are the best-known varieties of this species, there are many surprises. 'Red Warty Thing' is something old made new again: a reintroduction of the 19th-century 'Victor', courtesy of seedsman Roger Rupp—and a real rib-sticker. Cushaw pumpkins (Cucurbita argyrosperma) similar to 'Green Striped Cushaw' or 'Hopi Cushaw' have a venerable 7,000-year history.
Where tropical conditions reign (or rain), Cucurbita moschatas do best; they cannot tolerate cold as well as C. maximas can. Moschatas' brilliant orange carotenoid-rich flesh may be somewhat coarse and stringy, but when roasted, moschatas are absolved of this quality, and as good as the maximas. The familiar long-lasting buff-rinded Cheese Pumpkin and Butternut belong to this species. 'Lunga di Napoli,' popular in southern Italy, is like a molto grande Butternut. 'Yokohama' is a bewitching, bluish black, and blistery Japanese heirloom; if you're looking for table quality rather than style in the Japonicas, however, 'Futsu' and 'Chirimen' are a cut above. If I had to choose only one moschata to grow, it would be the 'Seminole'. The vine is irrepressible; the taste sublime. But be forewarned: You may need an axe to crack one open.
Most Reliable Flavor
Cucurbita pepo is the most popular and diverse species of all. It is home to the Ornamental Gourd group as well as eight edible-fruited cultivar groups: Acorn, Cocozelle, Crookneck, Pumpkin, Scallop, Straightneck, Vegetable Marrow, and Zucchini. A hundred years ago, in the days before Zucchini, Scallops (also known as Pattypans) and Summer Crooknecks were America's favorite summer squashes. And there's more to Acorn squashes than the dark green 'Table Queen': 'Thelma Sanders' and 'Fordhook' are both buff and handsome, though I prefer 'Thelma' for her sweetness. If you haven't already tried the finely netted 'Winter Luxury Pie', introduced in 1893, then you must grow it for pie stock, you'll never use canned pumpkin again. Although the Ornamental Gourds are bitter or bland, never sugary, they are an essential fall home decoration and bring holiday cheer.
Of the 150 heirloom squashes I cultivate in my garden, only a few are known to the general public. Farmers and gardeners need only grow the unusual and fine-flavored varieties to combat the plague of sameness in the supermarket and ensure that open-pollinated heirlooms—as opposed to hybrids—do not vanish. Seeds are, thankfully, available from small seed purveyors and the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange, which maintains hundreds of rare squash varieties.
Kent Whealy, executive director of Seed Savers Exchange, makes it his mission to ensure that "the great dinner plate of life" is a banquet: of good old-fashioned food. Squash diversity is astonishing. Use them for everything from soup to nuts, early on as immature squashes and then right through the fall as they mature into winter squashes.