Overabundant Send: The Surprisingly Versatile Pumpkin and Other Notes on Northwest Foods

Editor’s note: The OPB Video Series”overabundantexplores the stories behind Pacific Northwest foods. We are now applying the same guiding principles to a new platform: email. We tapped food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based food historian and botanist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem each week. Read below to get a taste of Friday’s newsletter, where Arndt Anderson explores many varied uses for pumpkins.

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Our Spidey senses are tingling. If you’ve tried to walk just about anywhere in the past few weeks, you’ve probably planted a cobweb or two. And you may have noticed that the spiders are HUGE this time of year. Spiders are more active as it is breeding season, which means they are looking for friends and cozy places to settle down. That’s a good thing, because grumpy yellow jackets and clouds of fruit flies are also always in droves, making late-season fruit harvests difficult.

The ground is a microcosm of dirty secrets. There is still so much we don’t know about life in the topsoil, but all life on earth depends on it. Fungi and bacteria coat the roots to allow plants to interface with microscopic soil inhabitants and communicate directly with each other. Beneath the surface of the soils of the Pacific Northwest also lurk two species of mega-earthworm – the Washington Palouse giant earthworm and the Oregon giant earthworm. Both are extremely rare (each has only been spotted a handful of times over the past few decades) and both spit lily-scented saliva.

The Northwest is setting the stage for human composting. Burial may be the oldest way to dispose of bodies, but burying the dead has become an increasingly toxic proposition since the advent of formaldehyde embalming fluids in the 19th century. Green landfill, a healthy eco-friendly alternative, has been gaining popularity since the 1990s, and now human composting is even an option; four different Natural Organic Reduction (NOR) facilities have been opened in Western Washington in the past two years, and one in Portland has already opened since human composting laws came into effect in 2021. Some even allow you to save human humus to fortify your flower beds.

Mosaic of paintings generated by Stable Diffusion AI using the prompt: “Portland Oregon, made of pumpkins, colorful, surreal, landscape”

MacGregor Campbell/OPB

Pumpkins: These are our favorite fall decorations, yes, but they are also crafts and women-prison. Oh, and you can eat them.

We think of pumpkins as a vegetable, but botanically speaking, pumpkins are a fruit; specifically, a type of tough berry called a pepo. Coincidently, the word “pumpkin” comes from the ancient Greek word pepon, meaning “melon”, then made its way to Modern English through the Middle French pompon. (The jury is still out on the etymological origin of the word “pompom” but our money is on the pouf being pumpkin-related.)

With a native range from the southern United States to northeastern Mexico, pumpkins are a distinctly American crop – one of Three Sisters of Indigenous Cuisine. All parts of the pumpkin plant are edible; besides the flesh, the seeds and leaves make an amazing range of soups and stews. Army green pumpkin seed oil is wonderful drizzled over risotto and pizza.

‘It was HUGE’

An old style drawing of a wild cucumber.

Public domain composite illustration of wild cucumber in the genus marah, related to the Oregon manroot.

Public Domain / Common Edible and Useful Plants of the West

Oregon does not have its own native gourds; the closest thing that grows wild here is the Oregon manroot (aka bigroot or wild cucumber; Marah oreganus) – a climbing cucurbit with a spiky, bitter fruit that looks like a cross between a fig and a cactus. You will mainly see it growing around the coast. This one is not to eat; bitterness is a good first clue to its deadly toxicity, but The people of the Columbia River Plateau evidently used its roots to treat skin sores and eye ailments.. Regardless of how endemic pumpkins are in the state, we’re definitely good at growing them. In 1919, the U.S. Seed Reporter of the Department of Agriculture stated that Oregon was first in average pumpkin seed yield per acre.

That said, pumpkin swagger seems to be as common as fish tales. “The Eastern Country boasts of Mammoth Gourds,” wrote the historian Francis Fuller Victor in 1872. “The Baker City Democrat is talking about seventy-three pounds. The Winnemucca ledger saw one weighing seventy-five pounds. And now comes the Owyhee Avalanche lifting up his contemporaries by declaring that one is on display in his city which weighs one hundred and six pounds. Since the Avalanche had the last laugh, it would have been his fault if he hadn’t told the story of the biggest pumpkin. One can only imagine how much Victor’s mind would have been blown had she witnessed the West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regattawhere every October, daring boaters race hollowed-out half-ton pumpkins on Lake Tualatin Commons.

A pious alternative

In Victor’s day, pumpkins weren’t exactly the beloved culinary heirloom that they are today. If agricultural bulletins of the time are any indication, much of Oregon’s pumpkin crop was fed directly to hogs until about the 1910s.Web-Foot cookbook(1885), Oregon’s first cookbook, includes some pumpkin recipes, including that of Mrs. William Ladd’s pie, but it was probably a carryover from New England, whence the Ladds had emigrated. (Hers doesn’t include any pumpkin pie spices except ginger, which just goes to show that money can’t buy good taste.) The only other pumpkin pie recipe in this book is for a soup from Paris, the era’s epicenter of culinary trends, but back in New England, pumpkins had long been used for everything from beer, bread and custard to, according to “General History of Connecticut” by Samuel Peters (1829), “a substitute for anti-Christian tarts.”

Learn about the history of pumpkin pie in America on the Library of Congress Blog.

Fortunately, ornamental or heirloom pumpkin varieties, many of which were developed in the 19th century, are also deeply flavorful and incredibly easy to grow, as anyone with a compost pile and a pile of squash tripe can attest. Some old warty varieties, such as Galeux d’Eysines, have a face only a mother could love, but we say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This fall, consider roasting or stewing the Jarrahdale or Cinderella pumpkin from your front porch before the squirrels tear them apart, and be sure to save the seeds for planting next summer.

Looking for pumpkins that are (almost) too pretty to eat? Discover Bloke in Portland, Bauman’s Farm and Garden in Gervais or Back Walters Farm in Maupin.

A red bowl filled with muhammara, surrounded by flatbread.

Muhammara is a perfect blend of fall ingredients and flavors.

Heather Arndt Anderson/OPB

This Syrian Roasted Red Pepper Dip typically uses nuts, but we love it with hazelnuts too. It’s not that far from left field, since the dish is also common in Turkey, which produces the majority of hazelnuts in the world. Makes about 1 ½ cups.

Ingredients

  • 2 pot roasted red peppers in olive oil, drained (or 2 roasted red peppers, seeded and peeled)
  • ½ cup soft breadcrumbs (fresh)
  • ½ cup chopped toasted Oregon hazelnuts
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses
  • ½ teaspoon cumin
  • ½ teaspoon of Aleppo pepper or urfa biber or ¼ teaspoon of cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon of sumac
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Instructions

In the bowl of a food processor, blend the ingredients until a coarse paste forms, adding more oil as needed to achieve your desired consistency. Alternatively, you can grind it using a mortar and pestle, which if we’re being honest sounds a lot more rocket science and seasonal. Transfer to a serving bowl, drizzle with a little olive oil and pomegranate molasses and add another pinch of Aleppo pepper if desired. Serve with warm flatbreads and your other favorite meze dishes.

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