“The sweet pumpkin alias cheese pumpkin or pie squash is the only true article in my opinion for making the most delicious of Yankee notions—pumpkin pie,” DD. Tooker wrote in an 1855 issue of Michigan Farmer. “I am not alone in my opinions, for I have yet to see the individual who would not agree with me in this matter.” With that, Tooker settled an age-old Thanksgiving dilemma: What is the tastiest pie pumpkin? At the time he was writing, Long Island cheese pumpkins—small, ridged, squat, saffron-colored gourds with firm flesh and stringy, seeded middles—were ubiquitous in their native New York. Yet within a hundred years of his writing, Long Island cheese pumpkins would almost vanish. Today, researchers, home gardeners, and farmers are working together to bring this iconic pumpkin back.
Long Island cheese pumpkins are members of the esteemed Cucurbita botanical genus, which includes zucchini and squash. Like many other heirloom squash and corn varieties, they developed from Native American cultivars. In the 19th century, the cheese pumpkin—a favorite in farmers’ almanacs and cookbooks—entered the commercial market, where its sweet flesh and earthy, oily seeds earned it a reputation as a superb cooking pumpkin. Since the early days of European colonialism, when malt was rare and expensive, the pumpkin has also been used in beer brewing, its sugary fruit ideal for fermentation.
But in the 1960s, cheese pumpkins began disappearing from seed catalogues, replaced by smoother, larger, brighter, and thinner-skinned Midwestern pumpkins, which rolled right off canning factory conveyor belts. The industry’s impact was so big, even Long Island farmers eventually stopped saving the cheese pumpkin’s seeds for future planting. Starting in the late 1970s, however, Long Islander Ken Ettlinger started stockpiling cheese pumpkin seeds, and collaborating with other growers to preserve the cultivar. Today, the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project, a group of concerned growers and food lovers, continues to make a concerted effort to bring the squash back to life. While the revived cheese pumpkin was first treated as a purely ornamental heirloom, it has recently begun to regain its culinary mojo. Stewed, baked, fried, dried, or fermented, the humble cheese pumpkin is ready to reign over the Long Island local table once more.
Need to Know
The cheese pumpkin did not get its name because it is the perfect candidate for a delectable pumpkin cheesecake, though it no doubt is. It was dubbed so because its appearance resembles a small wheel of cheese with an orangish rind, like a cute little pumpkiny Jarlsberg.
Where to Try It
Halsey Farm and Nursery WebsiteHalsey Farm & Nursery, Inc, 513 Deerfield Road, Water Mill, New York, 11976, United States
Pick up a cheese pumpkin or two fresh from the farm at this Long Island stand. Since this is a local product, look out for cheese pumpkins around the fall harvest—just in time for pie season.