Heirloom seeds, with extensive diversity, consistent productivity and incredibly delicious flavor, are special. Whether they journeyed to a garden tucked into immigrants’ pockets or continued to thrive where they originated, heirloom seeds are special because they are tied to human stories. Some, such as the delicious ‘Bradford’ watermelon or the ‘Carolina African Runner’ peanut, both of which nearly became extinct, are famous.
While they hold no claim to fame outside our family, my grandmother’s pumpkins are as intriguing as Carolina African peanuts and as delicious as Bradford Watermelons. With every successful harvest, I recall her voice, her unique laugh, and her delight in hosting an annual Pumpkin Gathering for her great-grandchildren.
Ethel Hamby, “Maw” to her grands and greats, was not a stereotypical grandmother. She preferred reading to cooking, traveling to cleaning house and she always set her alarm clock for 9:30 am, because she did not want to miss “too much” of the day. She grew an annual garden that included lettuce, corn, squash, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, fall greens and marigolds, but her favorite crop was pumpkin.
Connecting to Food Heritage with Pumpkin Seed-Saving
I never asked where Maw obtained the pumpkin seeds, but I suspect they came to her from her mother’s family. There are exceptions, but heirloom seeds typically passed from mother to daughter, a sort of dowry for new brides who grew food to sustain growing families. Native Americans grew pumpkins, which are indigenous to North American and at some point, must have shared these special seeds with Maw’s ancestors, but that story is lost to time.
Maw’s pumpkins, with lengthy, snaky vines, claimed a large portion of her garden and she delighted in watching the progress of fruit that quickly grew from small green orbs into a variety of winter squash. Smaller pumpkins weighed just a few pounds, but larger ones could top out around 50 pounds. Before her oldest great-grandchildren were school age, Maw began a tradition that continued until her death, at age 90, in 1994.
Pumpkin Gathering: A Family Tradition
The annual Pumpkin Gathering began with telephone calls from Maw to her daughter, Wanda, my cousin, Gwin, and to me.
“It’s time,” she gleefully announced and we traveled to her Happy Valley, N.C., home with our children and grandchildren in tow. Maw carried a large sharp knife to the garden and deftly wielded the tool to sever pumpkins from vines while Wanda, Gwin and I helped the children carry pumpkins to a waiting wheelbarrow. After posing for photographs, each child chose a pumpkin to take home and the group moved the remainder to Maw’s screened porch, a cool spot for winter squash to cure before they were shared with friends and family.
Pumpkins, like all squash, are heavy feeders and grow best in mounded hills, amended with composted manure, to allow vines to grow freely in all directions. My freezer holds seeds Maw saved and they are at least 27-years-old. Each year, I include some of the old seeds and these suspended life forms never fail to germinate and produce. This Spring, when I planted Maw’s pumpkins, I included a hill of seeds she saved, along with six hills of seed I saved from the annual pumpkin crop. The ancestor seeds germinated as well as their descendents and all produced a bumper crop of beautiful winter squash. From seven hills, the 2020 harvest yielded 58 pumpkins with a combined weight of over 1,100 pounds.
When my children, their spouses and fur babies traveled to our home in time to help with this year’s harvest, it made for a spontaneous recreation of Maw’s Pumpkin Gathering. Yes, heirloom seeds are special. They connect us to our past, offer hope for our future and inspire us to be grateful for food, for family and for special times we share with others.
Curing Pumpkins After Harvest
After harvest, I place pumpkins in a single layer in a dry, cool location where air circulates freely for at least two weeks. It is necessary to handle the squash carefully, as bruising can lead to rapid deterioration. I like to place the pumpkins on wood pallets to allow for better air flow and I check all sides often to be sure there are no signs of rot or pest infection.
Properly cured and stored, pumpkins can last for months. Although many people wash and sometimes add oil to pumpkin skin to make them shine, I only brush away soil. Unwashed pumpkin flesh can yield wild yeast, which can be harvested and used to make bread.
Maw's Pumpkin Pie Recipe
Although Maw Hamby did not enjoy everyday cooking, she loved making special pies with her pumpkins. No Thanksgiving celebration was complete without Maw’s pumpkin pie and our family honors her tradition by including her recipe for our annual feasts, even when we are not able to be together. Heirloom pumpkin is best for this recipe, but supermarket canned may be substituted. These pies are a variation of “chess” pie and the center is done when just set, so be sure not to overbake. No flour in the recipe makes this an excellent choice for gluten free dessert.
Yields two 9-inch pies
2 cups fresh pumpkin, cooked and pureed
3 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 3/4 cups milk
1. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl, stirring to combine. Pour into two prepared, unbaked pie shells and bake in a preheated 425-degree Fahrenheit oven for 15 minutes.
2. Lower heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 45 minutes or until center of pies are set.
Cindy Barlowe gardens 8 acres in North Carolina, where she grows and saves heirloom seeds, while freelance writing, covering the “seedy” side of gardening at Seed Tales. Connect with Cindy on Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.