Saving the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin

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Bridgehampton School students Julian Cheng, Jonathan DeGroot, James Fairchild and Justin LaPointe work with a crop of Long Island Cheese Pumpkins in the school's farmstead garden. Michael Heller photo

Bridgehampton School students Julian Cheng, Jonathan DeGroot, James Fairchild and Justin LaPointe work with a crop of Long Island Cheese Pumpkins in the school’s farmstead garden. Michael Heller photo

By Michelle Trauring

When Ken Ettlinger first met Stephanie Gaylor, he asked her where she had been his whole life—but not in a romantic way.

In an avid seed collector way.

“I think we were two unicorns who found each other,” Ms. Gaylor said during a recent telephone interview. “We have a very close relationship and I love the man dearly. He’s more than a mentor. We’re kind of like seedy soul mates.”

Ms. Gaylor’s collection exceeds 1 million seeds of 6,000 varieties, including 2,500 varieties of tomatoes alone—350 of which she grows every year at Invincible Summer Farms in Southold—and it is hard to imagine the scope of Mr. Ettlinger’s, given his 20 years on her, she said. When they met around 2012, they decided to join forces and create the Long Island Seed Consortium, which saves, develops and nurtures seeds.

Their primary interest lies in regional varieties, she said. So, naturally, the Long Island cheese pumpkin came up, not to mention Mr. Ettlinger’s connection to it.

“The pumpkin was saved by Ken. In the late 1970s, he noticed it was disappearing from seed catalogues, mainly because his mother really liked to bake pie with cheese pumpkins,” Ms. Gaylor explained. “He found as many cheese pumpkins as he could and helped bring them back. The Long Island cheese pumpkin wasn’t a blip on anybody’s radar, and we’re trying to change that.”

With the help of Curtis Sylvestor Showell, a squash seed breeder who planted Mr. Ettlinger’s seeds en masse in Maryland, the cheese pumpkin resurged among commercial retailers. But instead of making its way into kitchens as a culinary pumpkin, it landed on front porches as an ornament, according to Cheryl Frey, who partnered with Ms. Gaylor and Mr. Ettlinger to start the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project.

“What we wanted to do was bring the pumpkin to the forefront and let people on Long Island be proud that this is something from their region,” Ms. Frey said during a recent telephone interview. “Most of the people going to the farm stands don’t know what it is and say, ‘Oh, this is so pretty,’ and put it on their doorstep. Yes, it is so pretty, but it’s also really delicious. We want people to cook with it.”

The unusually squat, ribbed pumpkin—named for its resemblance to an old-fashioned wheel of cheese—is virtually edible through and through, from the shell and flesh to the seeds and flowers. In the 1800s, farmers’ almanacs and cookbooks in the Long Island Sound repeatedly noted the Long Island cheese pumpkin as a regional favorite, and while it remains one of the oldest pumpkin varieties in the United States, it is nearly impossible to trace its exact lineage.

That hasn’t stopped local farmers, chefs and organizations such as Edible East End, Edible School Gardens and Slow Food East End from jumping on the project’s bandwagon, championing the cheese pumpkin and fighting for its revitalization.

“Everyone is reaching for the pride of the San Morzano tomato. Everyone knows that tomato,” Ms. Frey said. “Part of it is a huge cultural idea that people can be proud of it. We’re really trying to get people wanting to grow it—and not just grow it and use it, but replicate the seed so this doesn’t happen again. So we don’t have the, ‘Oh, it’s forgotten. It’s gone.’ We want to keep regional items here.”

Stephanie Gaylor and Ken Ettlinger. Courtney Pure photo

Stephanie Gaylor and Ken Ettlinger. Courtney Pure photo

The pumpkins have arrived in hordes this season, their vines dominating gardens across the East End. Sag Harbor Elementary School dedicated a new, 12-foot-by-16-foot raised bed to Long Island cheese pumpkins, according to Megan Schmidt, co-chair of the Slow Food East End education and events committee, who is actively involved with Edible School Gardens.

“You go by the garden and look at the patch, that it came from five seeds is pretty amazing. No one believes it,” Ms. Schmidt said. “To grow the Long Island cheese pumpkin on Long Island is sort of our responsibility in this farming world because it’s maintaining its authenticity and flavor, and it’s the same pumpkin our ancestors ate from hundreds of years ago, since folks have been farming on the East End. This pumpkin falling off the map may not seem like a big deal, but that’s a very slippery slope.”

Bio-diversity is one of the topics of the hour at Terra Madre, a biannual conference hosted by Slow Food International that gathers delegates from all over the world to discuss good, clean, fair food—and taste it.

Out East Foodie blogger Laura Luciano took it upon herself to introduce the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin—in the form of fruit leather—and it went off without a hitch.

“What excites me is when farmers from other countries like Zimbabwe have an interest to grow the pumpkin, along with some tomato varieties that Steph Gaylor has been cultivating for a few years now,” Ms. Luciano wrote in a recent email from the conference headquarters in Turin, Italy. “I made a cheese pumpkin fruit leather that everyone really enjoyed. I was not sure how it would turn out, but was really tasty.

“I roasted the pumpkins, scooped out the flesh, pureed it” she explained. “Added an apple for pectin, sugar and spices—ginger, pumpkin, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg—and mixed until incorporated. On a baking sheet, I placed parchment paper, poured the mixture on the sheet and dehydrated at 170°F for about 6 to 10 hours. The result is a slightly chewy, pumpkin-pie-tasting ‘fruit leather.’ People who tried it were delighted, thought it would make a great snack for kids.”

Watching the children react to the pumpkins themselves is often hilarious and heart-warming, Ms. Schmidt said.

“They’re, by now—lucky them—used to seeing sunflowers grow, tomatoes grow. When they see a pumpkin, it’s like a different creature,” she said. “It’s just so iconic to children and so fun for what it stands for to them—Halloween or fall or Cinderella. It’s different than anything that’s growing in their garden.

“But it’s important for children to understand why it’s important on a grander scale,” she continued. “You start thinking about what happens when foods start disappearing; same thing when animals disappear or bugs disappear. It’s a rapid descent. We’re trying to stop that from happening with the cheese pumpkin. Everyone’s like, ‘Eww, I don’t want to eat a pumpkin that tastes like cheese.’ Maybe that’s not going for it, either. It really does make incredible pie.”

Just ask Mr. Ettlinger. He would know.

For more information about the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project, visit lirsc.org/about-the-project.

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