It’s amazing what comes from one tiny seed, one small spark of life given at the end of the season, a hope for the next one, waiting in darkness until the light and rain call forth the potential.
And the patience of those seeds that wait for years, maybe centuries, for that moment to unfurl.
I love to hold and look at these seeds and wonder what vine, what fruit lies hidden in the future, and what careful tending of the ancestors reaches through the recesses of time and rests at this moment in my palm.
Many seasons ago my friend Karen gave me some Seminole pumpkin seeds, the native Florida pumpkin that sustained the indigenous people for centuries. It grew very well and made lots of pumpkins.
One season we went traveling for the first time in many years. We were only gone for two weeks but when we returned all the pumpkins and squash I had planted had withered and died in the dry early summer weather.
This happens with gardening. Not everything works out year after year. You have to get used to failure and disappointment. Even after all these seasons now and growing things with an eye for abundance – rows upon rows, large beds, and way more seeds and starts than will ever survive, the same way that the oaks cover the ground with acorns, it still happens.
It was a sad season because these pumpkins are more than just for decorating. Sugary sweet, dense and starchy, they are a fall and winter staple. Baked and sauteed and cooked in soup, they are like bread. They sustain us from August to April.
But that year in the field where the pigs had been, there were pumpkin vines growing. I had fed the pigs the seeds and pulp from the season before, and the whole paddock became a tangle of huge vines.
We got more than forty pumpkins from those vines. They were not the same as Karen’s Seminole pumpkins. They were all different shapes because they had crossed with the other pumpkins I grew, but I saved seeds from them anyway, these wild pumpkins with silver-splashed leaves.
Every year since then I have grown these pumpkins. Some I tend in my garden and some grow wild in the pastures. I have selected them, and now they are nearly all the round-shaped ones and will keep 8 months or more at room temperature.
Early this year we had prepared a large field for corn, sweet potatoes and pumpkins, and I planted almost all my seeds to grow out many plants and make better selections.
But then we were as poor as church mice. It took Ethan a long time to find work, and meanwhile we had to live from my very small income of farming and storytelling. We never had the money, or we never had the time to fence the field, and all the plants that were planted there were left at the mercy of the goats, who love eating anything you care about until there was only a field of green, green pasture left and we let the cows graze on it in their rotation.
I shed tears over my pumpkins this year, though in the garden I got some other pretty pumpkins. I had grown all my favorites: Cinderella pumpkins, Galeux d’Eysines, Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato, and Blue Hubbard. They make beautiful pumpkins but they are bland in comparison, and the Cinderella pumpkins have an expiration date, where they magically turn into a pile of rotting mush at midnight, and you wake up to a sour smell and the prospect of heaving a giant rotting pumpkin outside before it explodes everywhere.
This was a worse failure than usual, because not only would we feel the ache of not having a staple crop all winter and spring, but i also had lost the seeds, the hope of the next season. Trying to be thrifty, I had saved and planted all the seeds I could instead of feeding them to the animals, and the pig pastures regrew as just grass and Virginia creeper.
Almost too late in the season I noticed a few pumpkin vines growing wild here and there in odd places. One was in deep the shade under an oak tree near the kitchen and didn’t seem to have much hope. Another one grew itself near the milking shed where it was likely to be trampled.
They looked weak and lingered slowly for awhile. I wasn’t even sure if they were my pumpkins or another volunteer. Then one day they grew long enough to hit full sunlight and they took off in all directions, their silver-splashed leaves so huge they hid the ground. As they grew along the fence I could see their tendriled ends grow overnight often more than 12 inches. It happened so quickly i could see them reaching as they wrapped themselves along the wire.
One vine became an aggressive mass 20ft x 20ft wide that put down roots at every chance so that even as the squash bugs and vine borers and mildew of the late summer killed the center, it kept growing and growing as separate vines and setting more and more fruit, looking strangely dead and dried at the heart but dark green and ambitious at the ends. I knew by then that they were my pumpkins after all, growing enormous and wild as if by magic.
I can’t even say how thankful I am to have this pumpkin growing here. It isn’t even a garden plant, I feel like it’s more like a kind friend who shows up and helps you out of trouble just when you need it.
You try to say thank you and it just gives you a wink and disappears, leaving behind many beautiful fruits, and that’s that. All you can do is gulp down some tears of gratitude and save the seeds… and remember to share some of them this time with the pigs and chickens, because you just might need a pumpkin vine to appear like a fairy godmother next season and smooth over life’s terrible disappointments.
There aren’t very many great pumpkin recipes out there I’ve noticed. Beyond pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie, savory pumpkin recipes are just not very common, and I had to figure something out for the year we grew more than 60 pumpkins.
This has been to date the most popular thing I’ve ever made with pumpkin. I haven’t been able to come up with a name for it, but it met all my requirements – easy, savory, just a few ingredients that can be home grown, short cooking time since we must find and split our own fuel, and my children actually eat it.
That’s pretty much all I can say for it other than once at a random dinner party a drunk guy raved about how he couldn’t believe pumpkin was so good for like 30 minutes after he tasted it. Then I started to explain about how I had been selecting this mochata pumpkin for so many seasons and the different varieties I thought went into it, which went completely over his head and he went to have a cigarette to escape.
The Best Pumpkin Dish Ever
1/2 of a medium sized pumpkin
4 cloves garlic (or several whole garlic chives)
A large spoonful of butter or lard
Salt and pepper
1 half pint canned tomatoes or 2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 1 cup water (or 1 cup fresh cherry tomatoes, but we are beyond that this time of year and must make do with preserves)
Home made cheese (optional)
- Peel and chop up the pumpkin while the butter or lard is melting in a sauce pan.
- Add the pumpkin and garlic or chives and season with salt and pepper.
- Add the tomato and stir. Put a lid on the pot and cook until pumpkin is tender.
- You can sprinkle on the cheese (optional) and stir it in while its still in the pot or you can (if you have time and are not just trying to get food on the table) pour it into a casserole dish and sprinkle the cheese on top. Then leave it in a warm oven for a few minutes to melt.