To many people, the round, orange pumpkins that appear at roadside markets in early fall symbolize the beginning of autumn - cool nights; crisp, clear days; and the changing of fall colors. But for vegetable grower Fitch Brennan, pumpkins are yet another crop to be harvested and then sold at the stand of his family-run farm.
Mr. Brennan, who began vegetable farming during the early 1940s, plants about 6 or 7 acres of pumpkins a year. He says pumpkins are incidental to the other vegetables he grows, but they're usually a good cash crop.
This year, however, the pumpkin harvest is down almost 50 percent because of the hot, dry summer. Instead of 20 tons of pumpkin an acre, Mr. Brennan expects to get only 10 tons. Last year the yield was extremely low, but that was because of the cool, wet growing season.
Most of the pumpkins Brennan sells are for jack-o'-lanterns at Halloween time. He also sells sugar pumpkins; a smaller, sweeter pumpkin; and a third variety, the Connecticut pumpkin, which was originally used for cow feed at the turn of the century.
The important thing about pumpkins is that they keep people coming in after the corn crop is finished, Brennan says. During the autumn months there is still a large variety of produce available, and most of his crops are planted to insure fresh vegetables until the end of October.
The farm stand where Brennan sells his produce is run by his wife, Eula, and his daughter, Beverly Burzynski. Spaghetti squash, zucchini, butternut squash, beans, peppers, cucumbers, onions, and sweet corn line the shelves.
From the Brennan hives, there is also fresh honey, darker in the fall than in spring. Especially appealing are the native nectarines, a fruit few people associate with Massachusetts.
According to Ms. Burzynski, the farm stand is completely family run, except for a few hired women who help with the harvesting. Most of the family members have second jobs, and the men spend the winter months overhauling equipment.
Ms. Burzynski finds the work very satisfying, but at times she gets discouraged. What bothers her the most, she says, ''are people who come into the farm stand with the attitude that, since the crops come from the ground, they should be cheap.
''But,'' she says, ''90 to 95 percent of the people are terrific. They really enjoy the vegetables and come back regularly.'' People are also very appreciative of the farm stand, which she decorates with in-season produce.
Dark-red and yellow indian corn hangs from the rafters, and pumpkins fill the front yard and tumble out of the carts on either side of the stand. The yellow and gold marigolds that line the drive invite passers-by to come in.
The pumpkins this year are half the size they should be, but the price has not increased substantially. At the Brennans' farm stand sugar pumpkins are selling for 25 a pound, and larger pumpkins, used mainly for jack-o'-lanterns, are 20 a pound.
When selecting pumpkins, choose ones that are heavy for their size and have hard, tough, unblemished rinds.
Pumpkins bruise easily, so be sure to handle them carefully.
Pumpkin tends to be rather bland when cooked and requires careful seasoning. Recommended spices include allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, fennel, and basil.
Here are some pumpkin recipes that are easy to prepare. These are delicious when warm from the oven, especially on cool fall nights. Pumpkin Apple Casserole 2 1/2 cups fresh pumpkin, peeled, in 1-inch chunks 1 1/2 cups apples, pared, in 1 1/2-inch slices 1/4 cup butter 1/4 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 cup walnuts, pecans, or chestnuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
Melt 3 tablespoons butter; combine with brown sugar, cinnamon, nuts, and salt.
Place a layer of squash in a 2-quart casserole. Drizzle part of butter and sugar mixture over it. Top with a layer of apples, then drizzle with mixture. Repeat until pumpkin, apples, melted butter and sugar are used.
Dot with remaining butter. Cover casserole and bake in a 350 degrees F. oven 45 to 60 minutes, or until apples and squash are tender. Serves 4. Pumpkin Bread 2/3 cup butter 2 1/2 cups sugar 4 eggs 2 cups cooked, mashed pumpkin 1/4 cup orange juice or water 3 1/3 cups sifted flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 2 teaspoons baking soda 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 2/3 cup chopped nuts or raisins (optional)
Cream butter and sugar; beat in eggs. Blend in pumpkin and orange juice. Sift dry ingredients and spices; blend into pumpkin mixture. Stir in nuts or raisins.
Spoon batter into 2 greased and lightly floured loaf pans. Bake in 350 degreees F. oven for 1 hour. Makes 2 loaves. This is a moist, sweet bread that keeps well and may also be frozen. Pumpkin Muffins 1 1/2 cups flour 1/2 cup sugar 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 cup butter, softened 1 egg 1/2 cup milk 1 cup finely grated raw pumpkin
Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add butter, egg , milk, and pumpkin. Cut with pastry blender until just mixed.
Fill greased muffin tins almost full. Bake in 400 degrees F. oven 20 minutes. Makes 8 large or 12 medium-size muffins. Pumpkin Puree
Quarter pumpkin, and scrape out seeds and fibres. Cut into manageable chunks and remove skins. Place pumpkin in heavy saucepan with small amount of water, and cook over low heat. As juices begin to come from pumpkin, raise the heat to cook as quickly as possible. Strain off excess liquid. Puree is ready for use. It may be used immediately, frozen or canned for future use.
If canning the puree, you may want to use a fairly large pumpkin to insure enough puree to warrant pressure canning it.