Autumn Pumpkin: Jack o' All Trades

From creative carvings to festive fare, the voluminous orange gourd is a versatile fruit

THE Common Ground Country Fair is a big draw every fall in Windsor, Maine. From pig calling and pie baking to fiddling and folk art, it is a cornucopia of country life that symbolizes down-home ideals.

Sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the fair is a showcase for sustainable farming practices. But even more, it is a celebration of community, and ``the ability to find what you need in your own backyard - good food, good times, folks helping others, folks caring for the land,'' says executive director Nancy Ross.

I have come to the fair with my mother in search of pumpkins. I will gather information on the bright orange vine crop, while my mother will buy one for a porch decoration.

Pumpkins have always been a family novelty, we note, as we weave our way through the throngs of fairgoers. Like many families, ours has always associated pumpkins with Halloween (jack-o'-lanterns), Charlie Brown (The Great Pumpkin), a nursery rhyme (Peter Pumpkin Eater), and stories from suburbia.

Every Halloween, our neighbors in New Jersey, the Smiths, displayed the most gigantic pumpkin they could find. Then they held a contest for the neighborhood kids to guess the number of seeds. One particular year, one of my younger brothers made the closest guess and was awarded $5; the local newspaper ran his photo.

While the Smiths ended up dumping their giant pumpkin, my dad had a more entertaining method of disposal for our smaller jack-o'-lanterns: the annual pumpkin bash. He and my oldest brother would drop them one-by-one from the top of a tall water tower. We marveled at the basketball-like fruit in flight, then scurried to examine the pulpy remains.

But the most memorable pumpkin stunt occurred later when my youngest brother came home from kindergarten with pumpkin seedlings. He planted them in our backyard and waited for them to grow. We humored him with comments about New Jersey being the Garden State, saying ``maybe a pumpkin will grow,'' but we were skeptical all along.

Then - to our surprise - a vine did grow: tendrils, blossoms, fruit. Backyard critters (most notably our dog Misha) trampled and gnawed on most of the potential pumpkins, but one managed to survive, hidden under some brush. It soon grew into a large-sized pumpkin, much to my brother's delight and more neighborhood fame. We didn't have to buy a pumpkin that Halloween. After carving it, of course, we cooked and ate the seeds.

Everyone, it seems, has a pumpkin story to tell. Here at the fair, I talk with Rob Johnston, Jr. about pumpkin appeal. ``People are interested in pumpkins because they can bring a piece of the country and have it at home,'' he says.

Mr. Johnston is chairman of Johnny's Selected Seeds, based in Albion, Maine. His farm stand features many different pumpkins and squashes - from the mini Jack-Be-Little pumpkin to the huge Blue Hubbard Wintersquash.

Pumpkin size is down this season in New England, Johnston notes. But he points out some prize varieties: the Baby Bear pumpkin, weighing 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 pounds (about half the size of a normal pie pumpkin) and the large Tom Fox, a 1994 variety. The Tom Fox is ``pretty,'' Johnston observes, as it doesn't flatten on the side that it grows. Plus it has a heavy stem - the perfect Halloween pumpkin.

Pumpkins - genius Cucurbita - can range from a few ounces to hundreds of pounds (the world record is 827 pounds) and are known to keep for a long time.

Although the United States Department of Agriculture has never collected data on squash and pumpkins, it hopes to by 1995, due to increased interest. (Pumpkins have always been a regional crop because they are so heavy to transport. Pumpkin and squash are often applied inconsistently to certain varieties.)

The size, shape, and color of pumpkins vary greatly as do their uses, from weight competition to seed toasting, though most people buy and grow them for decoration and food. Indeed, pumpkins have been around a long time. Seeds from related plants have dated back to 50,000 B.C. in North America.

Which pumpkins are good for cooking? Autumn Gold, Small Sugar (New England Pie), Big Moon, Ghost Rider, Spirit, and Bushkin, just to name a few.

Elizabeth Riely, author of ``A Feast of Fruits,'' (MacMillan, $25, 340 pp.) is a loyal fan of the sugar pumpkin. It's sweet, has good flavor, and isn't too watery, she says.

But many people don't appreciate fresh pumpkin enough, she says, during a phone interview. ``Americans are extremely unadventurous. They just want to buy it canned, from the shelf.''

And there's so much more beyond the basic pumpkin-pie recipe, Ms. Riely says. Some of her favorite pumpkin recipes include Pumpkin, Leek, and Ham Gratin; Pumpkin Cider Conserve; and Pumpkin Chutney. ``My children love to make toasted pumpkin seeds. It's a good snack, and also a nice garnish. You can sprinkle a few on the top of finished soup.''

For Thanksgiving, Riely says, she often makes her Gingered Pumpkin Custard in little pumpkin cups along with pumpkin-pie tartlets - that way people can have as little or as much dessert as they wish.

As pies, bread, muffins, puddings, soup, and stuffings come steaming out of the oven and off the stove, people are reminded: It is no coincidence that we harvest and give thanks in the same season.

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