Fall is the most popular season, according to surveys. Something about the shortening days, crisp breezes, and pumpkin spice everything in the stores inspires people to get out doing some autumnal activities. I recently attended an event that deserves to become a new fall tradition, alongside the hayrides, corn maizes, and the holidays people enjoy this time of year.
The event was a pumpkin tasting, where members of the public evaluated nine different varieties of locally grown pumpkin & winter squash for flavor. The hosts of the event prepared each variety identically, in two ways – as baked chunks, and as a cooked puree, but with no added flavoring agents, and laid out samples of each type on tables. Attendees were invited to taste all varieties and fill out a sheet evaluating each for flavor, texture, & appearance.
Organized by local nonprofit Working Food, the event had an important purpose – to choose the best tasting varieties for the organization to promote for local gardeners and farmers to plant out, and also to help write flavor descriptions in Working Food’s seed catalog.
To me, the difference in taste from variety to variety was dramatic. Most were at least good, a few were “meh” bland, and several had funky aftertastes which I didn’t enjoy. But one pumpkin stood out from the crowd – it had a delicious creamy texture and rich pumpkin-y flavor, perfectly balanced between savory & sweet, with lingering notes of caramel. (I did a little informal “exit polling” of some of the other people participating, and a number of them liked that same one I did.)
The more I think about it, the more I realize the importance of this kind of event, and how different it is from the “pumpkin recipe” contests that sometimes are held. One of the biggest benefits is it educates everyone – farmers, gardeners, and the general public – that pumpkins don’t all taste the same (even if they have the same variety name), the best breeds can produce a superior eating experience.
The variety I considered the winner was labelled as “Seminole Pumpkin” – but there were three other strains of “Seminole Pumpkin” on the table. None of the others tasted as good. Without results from an event like this, someone trying “Seminole Pumpkin” would have a 75% chance of getting one of the lesser-tasting varieties, and might conclude, “Why bother with Seminole Pumpkins? They just don’t have much flavor.” (Not realizing how good they can be.)
Taste-test results make sure local farmers & gardeners are growing the best flavored varieties from the best seeds. Having events like this every year can continually improve the flavor of the local pumpkin crop, weeding out the weaker flavored types. Pumpkins and squash store well, meaning they can be an important locally-produced food for many months of the year. If those pumpkins actually taste really good on their own, people can enjoy this healthful food without having to add lots of sugar, fat & salt to make it taste good – a win for our health and waist lines.
Previously, a person who attends one if these events as a taster might’ve thought of pumpkin as that bland stuff you get out of a can once a year, which you need to add lots of sugar, salt, and fat in order to make it taste good in a seasonal recipe. But having experienced how good a pumpkin can be, that person might be more likely to visit the local farmers market to buy the winning “best-flavor” pumpkin varieties, and make this healthful food a regular part of their diet, because it’s so delicious on its own.
It’s important that different geographical areas hold their own tastings of locally grown pumpkins, because different varieties are adapted to particular regions. You might’ve looked at the pumpkins in the photos in this article and thought, “those don’t look like the pumpkins I know.” That’s because the classic orange pumpkin, beloved for jack-o-lanterns, belongs to the species Cucurbita pepo, which grows well in Northern summer weather but it doesn’t much like Florida’s steamy summers. Another species, Cucurbita moschata, grows much better here in our near-tropical conditions, so all nine varieties in this tasting were forms of Cucurbita moschata.
If you live in a climate where some type of pumpkins/squash can grow (which includes most places where humans live), consider organizing a pumpkin tasting next year. Or a local gardening club, school, restaurant, or agricultural extension office could hold the event, soliciting pumpkin contributions from local farms and gardeners. Farms which already offer autumn activities could add this to their fall offerings – maybe a pumpkin tasting event every weekend through the autumn season? Rather than those goofy “biggest pumpkin” contests you hear about in the news every year, let’s have “best flavored pumpkin” contests. Not only does it help support local agriculture, it gets people interested in local food and gardening, it’s also just fun – an autumn-themed activity that lets anyone play an important role in supporting local food production.
(Note: If you are looking to get seeds from the winning pumpkin varieties, don’t message me asking me to send you seeds. I don’t have them. Contact Working Food)