Sunday, June 30, 2013

Would a Pumpkin By Any Other Name Taste as Sweet?

Would a pumpkin by any other name taste as sweet? What if you discovered it was actually a squash? Read on to discover all kinds of surprising facts about the pumpkins grown in Central Illinois.

I live and work in central Illinois, so I'm accustomed to the idea of living in the Corn Belt, and in the Bread Basket of the Nation. To be more specific, I live only a few miles away from Morton, Illinois, which bears a more unusual nickname: The Pumpkin Capitol of the World.

In this case, the nomenclature is well-earned.  According to the University of Illinois Extension Service, 90% of the pumpkins grown worldwide are produced right here, within a 90 mile radius. If you're a fan of pumpkin pie, chances are you've eaten Morton pumpkin, as 85-95% of the canned pumpkin sold worldwide is processed in the Libby's pumpkin processing plant in Morton. Nearly 500 million pounds of pumpkins were produced in Illinois in 2008. Pumpkins are serious business around here!

I grew up in Iowa, surrounded by fields of corn and beans, alfalfa and wheat. In the Peoria and Morton, Illinois, area however, it isn't unusual to see entire fields planted with pumpkins. In fact, the USDA statistics say that around 17,000 acres of cropland in Illinois are dedicated to pumpkin growing. The first time I saw one, I actually pulled over for a closer look. I'd seen little U-Pick pumpkin patches, and fields of decorative pumpkins growing at apple orchards to satisfy the carving and decorating needs of the local communities. I'd never seen pumpkins like these, however. In fact, if my husband hadn't told me what they were, I'm not sure I would have recognized them as pumpkins at all!

The pumpkins used for cooking and canning are quite different than the big, orange specimens we so commonly see in the fall. Ask any child to draw a pumpkin, and they'll go for their brightest orange crayon. Pie pumpkins, or sugar pumpkins, aren't nearly as bright. They are more of a buff or tan color, with hints of orange. If you are familiar with butternut squash, you know the color I'm talking about! In our area, Libby's contracts with farmers to put 5,000 acres of land into production growing one specific variety of pie pumpkin, called Dickinson's Select. These pie pumpkins are more closely related to butternut squash than to the orange jack-o-lantern pumpkins.

The debate over "is it a pumpkin, or is it a squash?" comes from the fact that what we commonly think of as pumpkins are actually a member of the winter squash family.  There are three main varieties of winter squashes.

The first is Cucurbita pepo, which includes the large, bright orange pumpkins we see in fall decor and Halloween pumpkin carving. Many popular cooking squashes are included in the second category, Cucurbita maxima, such as Hubbard squash, and Boston Marrow. The third, Cucurbita moschata, includes a wide range of other culinary and decorative squashes, including both the butternut squash, the heirloom pie pumpkin 'Long Island Cheese' (pictured at left), and the "pumpkin" used by Libby's for their canned pumpkin. The very terms "pumpkin" and "squash" are largely interchangeable, and vary in usage by geographic area.  

Pumpkins come in a surprisingly wide range of sizes, from minis that weigh in at less than a pound, to giant pumpkins that reach a record-setting 1,800 pounds. I would be hard-pressed to name any other food crop that hits both extremes in size! Most pie pumpkins weigh in between 5-10 pounds, which is smaller than the typical pumpkin used for a jack-o-lantern. Though the size is smaller, the walls are thicker and meatier, and the flesh is less stringy. It is possible to cook the carving pumpkins, C. pepo, but the resulting puree is less flavorful, more watery, and very stringy.  

So what makes central Illinois so ideal for pumpkin growing? Though pumpkins are grown on a small scale in many parts of the world, the area around Morton seems to provide just the right balance of rich soil, rainfall, and hot weather. Pumpkin fields can't tolerate any frost, and produce best in rich, loamy soil. To grow them on a large scale, they also take some specialized farming equipment, which is one benefit of keeping the pumpkin-growing operations for Libby so centralized. Libby's provides both the seed and the equipment for harvesting the pumpkins, which occurs in late summer and fall. Unlike your local U-Pick pumpkin farm, the pumpkins destined for canned puree are cut from the vines by machines that also line them up in neat rows in the fields. They must cure in the fields for 10-14 days, and are then collected by a tractor with a conveyor belt, which drops them into a padded truck and transported to the processing plant in Morton. 

On the flip side, Libby's is putting all of their proverbial eggs in one basket. In 2009, central Illinois experienced nearly unprecedented rainfall over a long period of time, making it very difficult to get the pumpkin fields planted, and in many cases literally impossible to harvest. Newspapers carried pictures of huge tractors buried up to the axles in mud, unable to work in the fields during the crucial harvest period. In many cases, the entire crop went to waste, and was eventually plowed under to return the nutrients to the soil for next year's crop. Nationwide, grocery stores fielded complaints when the shelves remained empty of canned pumpkin as Thanksgiving approached.

Of course, you don't have to rely on canned pumpkin for your kitchen needs. If you grow your own winter squash and eating pumpkins, you can certainly cook and puree your own. Cooking methods vary, with some people insisting that you must roast the halved pumpkins, then peel and puree the fruit. Others microwave, steam, or boil the pumpkin before pureeing. I confess, I bought a pie pumpkin only once, and went through the hours-long process of cutting, seeding, roasting, peeling, scraping, pureeing, and draining. The house smelled wonderful, though I had bits of pumpkin splattered on my cabinets and in my hair. The end result? It was virtually indistinguishable from the pies I made with canned pumpkin. I won't discourage anyone from giving it a try, but for my part, I decided the mess wasn't worth it.

One last aspect of the pumpkin culture in Morton can't go unrecognized: the annual Pumpkin Festival. While many towns in the area have seasonal festivals (the Washington Cherry Festival and Tremont Turkey Festival come immediately to mind), none of them compare to the sheer scale of the scale of the Morton Pumpkin Festival. An average year brings 70,000 festival attendees, many from surrounding communities. There are carnival rides (and yes, some are even pumpkin-themed!), games, pumpkin decorating contests, a giant pumpkin growing contest, a Pumpkin Pageant, pumpkin shirts, and an unbelievably long and polished parade.  And what pumpkin festival would be complete without a pumpkin pie eating contest?  

The highlight for my family (especially my perpetually hungry teen and preteen boys), however, is the food tent area. Here you can buy the usual pork chops, sandwiches and hot dogs, but in addition are a range of pumpkin foods you wouldn't believe! Pumpkin ice cream probably tops the list among most of the festival-goers I talked to, but the list contains pumpkin chili, pumpkin baked beans, pumpkin jambalaya, pumpkin pasta salad, pumpkin pie (of course), pumpkin donuts, pumpkin fudge, pumpkin cheesecake, and pumpkin cookies. Saturday morning features a 10K race and an all-you-can-eat pumpkin pancake breakfast.

The culinary world seems to finally be catching up to what Morton natives have known all along: pumpkin is a nutritious and versatile food. The Food Network listed cooking with pumpkin among its top 10 food trends for 2013, with pumpkin appearing on upscale restaurant menus and featuring in more magazine recipes than ever before. They've even declared that "pumpkin is the new bacon." Starbucks has certainly led the way with this trend, with people clamoring for their seasonal-only pumpkin spice lattes year-round, and copycat recipes proliferating on the web! Even McDonalds has come out with a pumpkin spice latte.

You may find this short video entertaining. Though aimed at school-aged kids, it gives a good basic overview of how pumpkins grow and are harvested. In most parts of the country, you wouldn't see semi-truckloads of pumpkins rolling down the highway, but it is a common sight in September and October here!

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