Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Pumpkins, pure and simple

It’s a Great Pumpkin season, Charlie Brown!

And along with the gleeful grade schoolers who eagerly are trading a seat behind a desk for one behind a tractor these days, local farmers are tickled a decidedly orange shade of pink.

“We had rain in the beginning, and then it was very dry. When all the foliage went dry, there was just a blanket of orange balls,” said Chris Schaefer of Schaefer Farms in Flemington, who’s been growing pumpkins for two decades. “It’d have to say it’s the best crop we’ve ever had.”

Other farmers around the states echo his enthusiasm. “We had a record-breaking season. The weather just cooperated, the bees did their job, we didn’t have any floods,” said Colleen Brennan, marketing manager at Heaven Hill Farm in Vernon. “Last year was a disaster. We lost almost all our pumpkins. This is ideal growing conditions for pumpkins,” said Peter Melick of Melick’s Town Farm in Oldwick.

“I think the good Lord decided to give us a good crop for a change,” said Jim Giamarese of Giamarese Farms in East Brunswick.

The season’s dry growing conditions helped keep away the fungal diseases that can devastate a pumpkin patch. “The pumpkins aren’t huge because we didn’t have the water to make them swell, but the quality is good,” said Ed Wengryn, a field representative with the NJ Farm Bureau in Trenton.

The recent sunny weather has also been luring families to area farms to pick their own pumpkins and, as a result, farmers are seeing a lovely shade of green. “If it weren’t for the pumpkins, we probably wouldn’t have many people here,” said Giamarese. “We do probably half of our income in apples and pumpkins from mid-September to Halloween.”

“You’re not just selling a pumpkin; you’re selling a family outing. It’s like going for a Christmas tree,” said Schaefer, whose 227-acre farm has been in his family since 1949. “It’s become an Americana family fall fun thing,” said Brennan, who sells pumpkins to 15,000 school children a year from mid-September through November.

Though initially attracted by vibrant displays of jumbo pumpkins, customers find plenty else to savor. The common perception is that the local growing season is winding down, said Wengryn, “yet it’s the best time of year for all our greens — cauliflower, kale, lettuces and end of year herbs like sage — and root crops, squashes, beets, carrots.” As for the pumpkins, Wengryn estimates that “90 percent of the people buy them for decorative purposes.”

If pumpkins are sold as decorations, they’re subject to sales tax. But rare is the farmer who charges tax on pumpkins, for there’s no way to know if customers will end up eating them or not.

But if they don’t, it’s a darn shame, maintains Alfred Finocchiaro, manager of the Tri County Cooperative Auction Market in Hightstown, which auctions wholesale quantities of produce, including pumpkins, each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 p.m. Having grown up on a farm in Swedesboro, Finocchiaro was raised on home-baked pumpkins. “They’re delicious if you cook them right,” he said. “Pumpkins once represented your food for the winter. Today, it’s a decoration,” he said. “People will pay $15 for a pumpkin and let it rot on the steps. But if tomatoes go up 10 cents at the market, they’re up in arms.”

“It’s an older generation food that used to be stored in the root cellar,” noted Michelle Infante-Casella, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Gloucester County. Ready availability of specialty foods from around the world has taken the luster off many traditional winter staples, she added, and researchers conducting variety trials don’t bother to evaluate pumpkins for flavor anymore. “People want a face pumpkin, a carving pumpkin,” she said.

A member of the Curcubita genus and native to the New World, pumpkins, along with squashes, are related to cucumbers and melons. “The American cucurbits are thought to have evolved at a very early date in Central and South America from gourd-like fruits with bitter flesh and edible seeds.

It was these oil- and protein-rich seeds that early American Indians were after when they brought them into cultivation,” wrote Jonathan Roberts in “The Origins of Fruit & Vegetables” (Universe, 2001). Having never seen anything like them before, the 16th-century Spanish explorers who were the first Europeans to encounter them called them melons. Our word for them may come from the old French pompon, which came from the classical Greek pepon, which also was applied to melons.

According to Roberts, the survival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts was secured when the Patuxet Squanto Indians showed them how to grow pumpkins among their corn, and “in October, 1621 they held their first Thanksgiving meal, with boiled pumpkins on the table.” Later they learned “to cut off the fruit’s top, scoop out its flesh and seeds, fill it with milk and roast it whole until the milk was absorbed.”

An excellent source of beta-carotene, pumpkins also are the richest source of alpha-carotene, which has been shown to protect against cancer.

Yet the earthy — some would say bland — taste of pumpkin and its fibrous flesh are not for everyone, and even many pumpkin farmers maintain that butternut squash makes the best-tasting “pumpkin” pie.

“All pumpkins are edible, but there are so many other choices that are more palatable and have a higher sugar content,” said Infante-Casella. Since the flesh of face pumpkins tends to be watery, she recommends baking them to evaporate the excess moisture.

“Take a small pumpkin and halve it around the equator,” suggested Finocchiaro. “Put it face down in a pan with some water and bake it for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees until it’s soft. Then turn it up and fill it with maple syrup, butter, cinnamon, brown sugar, raisins and walnuts and bake it for about 30 minutes. Talk about delicious! It’s pumpkin pie without the crust. You just scoop it right out of the skin.”

With dense orange flesh and a tan exterior, the cheese pumpkin — so-named because it resembles a wheel of cheese — is a popular baking variety. So are mini pumpkins like Jack-Be-Little and Jack-Be-Quick and the squat, red-orange Rouge Vif d’Estampes, also known as Cinderella, because it’s the variety that was transformed into the fairytale heroine’s carriage. But not even the most well-intentioned fairy godmother can conjure much of a demand for pumpkins come November.

“After Halloween you see the big drop off in people’s interest,” said Wengryn. Nonetheless, the local harvest can last well into December, and as long as temperatures don’t drop below freezing, pumpkins that have been sitting outside as decorations can be used for autumn meals. “You can still make a nice pie from a regular pumpkin,” said Schaefer.

For best results, select a meaty-fleshed pumpkin, said Wengryn. Look for one that’s heavy for its size and makes a dead, not hollow, sound when you give it a thump. A fresh pumpkin will have a hard green stem A brown stem signals an older pumpkin. Avoid pumpkins with cracks or soft spots. When picking up a pumpkin, do so by the body, not by the stem, to avoid damaging the flesh at the top. There are no other tricks to picking a pumpkin treat.