Superabundant

Superabundant dispatch: The surprisingly versatile pumpkin, and other notes on NW foods

By Heather Arndt Anderson (OPB)
Oct. 7, 2022 4:30 p.m.

Food writer Heather Arndt Anderson shares insights into human composting and more than you ever wanted to know about pumpkins.

Editor’s note: OPB’s video series “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest. Now we’re taking the same guiding principles to a new platform: Email. We’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and botanist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem every week. Read below to get a taste of Friday’s newsletter, where Arndt Anderson explores many varied uses for pumpkins.

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Small bites: Spiders, spitting worms, and how to hide a body

Our Spidey senses are tingling. If you’ve tried walking just about anywhere over the past few weeks, you’ve likely face-planted a spider web or two. And you may have noticed that the spiders are HUGE this time of year. Spiders are more active because it’s breeding season, which means they’re on the lookout for mates and cozy places to set up shop. This is a good thing, because grumpy yellow jackets and clouds of fruit flies are also still out in droves, making the late-season fruit harvests a drag.

The soil 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 roots to enable plants to interface with the soil’s microscopic denizens and to communicate with each other directly. Lurking beneath the surface of the Pacific Northwest’s soils are also two species of mega-earthworm — the giant Palouse earthworm of Washington and the Oregon giant earthworm. Both are exceedingly rare (each have only been spotted a handful of times over the past decades), and both spew lily-scented spit.

The Northwest is doing the groundwork in human composting. Burial might be the oldest way of disposing of bodies, but burying the dead has become an increasingly toxic proposition since the advent of formaldehyde embalming fluids in the 19th century. Green burial, an ecological sound alternative, has been growing in 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 over the past couple of years, and one in Portland has already opened since human composting laws went into effect in 2021. Some even let you keep the human humus to fortify your garden beds.

Pumpkins: An American crop almost too pretty to eat

Mosaic of paintings generated by Stable Diffusion AI using the prompt: "Portland Oregon, made of pumpkins, Colorful, Surrealist, Landscape"

Mosaic of paintings generated by Stable Diffusion AI using the prompt: "Portland Oregon, made of pumpkins, Colorful, Surrealist, Landscape"

MacGregor Campbell / OPB

Pumpkins: They’re our favorite fall decorations, yes, but they’re also watercraft and wife-prisons. Oh, and you can eat them.

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

With a native range from the southern United States to northeastern Mexico, pumpkins are a decidedly American crop — one of the Three Sisters of Indigenous cuisine. All parts of the pumpkin plant are edible; besides the flesh, the seeds and leaves make a stunning array of soups and stews. Army-green pumpkin seed oil is wonderful drizzled on risotto and pizza.

‘It was this big’

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An old style drawing of a wild cucumber.

Composite public domain illustration of wild cucumber of the genus marah, related to the Oregon manroot.

Public Domain / Common edible and useful plants of the West

Oregon doesn’t have any native squashes of its own; the closest thing that grows wild here is Oregon manroot (aka bigroot, or wild cucumber; Marah oreganus) — a vining cucurbit with a spiny, bitter fruit that looks like a cross between a fig and a cactus. You’ll mainly see it growing around the coast. This one is not for eating; the bitterness is a good first clue about its deadly toxicity, but Columbia River Plateau people evidently used its roots to treat skin sores and ailments of the eye. Regardless of pumpkins’ endemicity to the state, we’re certainly good at growing them. In 1919, the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Seed Reporter declared that Oregon was the first in average yield of pumpkin seeds per acre.

That said, pumpkin brags seem to be as common as fish tales. “The eastern country is boasting of mammoth squashes,” wrote historian Francis Fuller Victor in 1872. “The Baker City Democrat speaks of one weighing seventy three pounds. The Winnemucca Register has seen one weighing seventy five pounds. And now comes the Owyhee Avalanche raising its contemporaries by declaring that one is on exhibition in its town which weighs one hundred and six pounds. As the Avalanche had the last say it would have been its own fault if it had not told the story of the largest pumpkin.” One can only imagine how wide Victor’s mind would’ve been blown if she’d witnessed the West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta, wherein every October, bold boaters race hollowed-out, half-ton pumpkins across Tualatin Commons Lake.

A pie-ous alternative

Back in Victor’s day, pumpkins weren’t exactly the beloved culinary heirloom they are today. If the agricultural bulletins of the era are any indication, a lot of Oregon’s pumpkin crop was being fed directly to pigs until around the 1910s. The “Web-Foot Cook Book” (1885), Oregon’s earliest cookbook, does include a few pumpkin recipes, including the one for Mrs. William Ladd’s pie, but this was likely a carryover from New England, whence the Ladds had emigrated. (Hers doesn’t include any pumpkin pie spices except for ginger, which just goes to show money can’t buy good taste.) The only other pumpkin recipe in that book is for a soup from Paris, the era’s epicenter of culinary trendspotting, but back in New England pumpkins had long been used for everything from beer, bread and custard to, according to Samuel Peters’ “General History of Connecticut” (1829), “a substitute for antichristian mince pies.”

Read about the history of pumpkin pie in America at the Library of Congress blog.

Fortunately, ornamental heritage or heirloom pumpkin varieties, many of which were developed in the 19th century, also happen to be deeply flavorful and incredibly easy to grow, as anyone with a compost heap and a pile of squash guts can attest. Some old warty varieties, like 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 simmering the Jarrahdale or Cinderella pumpkin from your porch before the squirrels dismember them, and be sure to save the seeds for planting next summer.

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

Recipe: Hazelnut muhammara

A red bowl filled with muhammara, surrounded by flatbread.

Muhammara is perfect blend of fall ingredients and flavors.

Heather Arndt Anderson / OPB

This Syrian roasted red pepper dip usually uses walnuts, but we like it with hazelnuts too. It’s not that far out of left field, since the dish is also common in Turkey, which produces the world’s majority of hazelnuts. Makes about 1 ½ cups.

Ingredients

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

Instructions

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

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