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By: Katherine Hernandez and Laura Luciano

Since the 1800s, the Long Island cheese pumpkin has been known for making the best pumpkin pies. This fruit has the shape of a wheel of cheese, dense flesh the color of burnt sienna, and flavor that is sweet, earthy, and savory when cooked. It can be boiled, baked, steamed, pickled, or roasted, to be enjoyed in soups, purees, desserts, preserves, pasta, and stews. Most of the plant is edible: rind, flesh, seeds, and flowers.

However, with the modernization of food production in the mid-20th century, the Long Island cheese pumpkin started to acquire a reputation as a farm-to-porch pumpkin. The canned pumpkin industry preferred rounder varieties, with smooth surfaces that rolled off conveyor belts with ease for faster processing. Retailers sold fewer seeds of the Long Island cheese pumpkin, and it disappeared entirely from commercial seed catalogs in the 1970s.

This is where local seed saver Ken Ettlinger comes in. Growing up on Long Island, Ettlinger had fond childhood memories of his mother’s Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, and he scoured farms on the east end for this coveted pumpkin. He noticed that fewer farms were growing the pumpkin, since the seed was so hard to find. He decided to save the seeds from whatever cheese pumpkins he could find and eventually traveled to Maryland, where Curtis Sylvestor Showell, a squash seed breeder, planted the seeds and grew enough to supply a commercial retailer. They reintroduced the pumpkin commercially, and it again gained popularity, but only as an ornament and not a delicious ingredient. In an effort to reclaim this local Ark of Taste pumpkin back into the culinary vernacular, the Long Island Regional Seed Consortium started the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project.

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This past Sunday, at Jimmy’s No.43, we celebrated the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project during a Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Chef Cook-off. We celebrated Ken Ettlinger’s work and the culinary creativity the Long Island pumpkin has inspired in chefs part of the cook-off. 

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Typically, when I think of cooking pumpkin my mind says pumpkin pie, ravioli, sautéed pumpkin with a drizzle of olive oil and salt as a side dish—nothing out of the ordinary. The chefs at the cook-off, however, have opened my mind to the possibilities of using pumpkin in various ways, specifically, the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin. Baked pumpkin puree combined with a hint of cinnamon, salt, and pepper, then drizzled with pecorino cheese that crackled on the surface of the puree, was served in a cast iron skillet. Roasted pumpkin tossed into a salad bowl of herbs, bright pomegranate seeds, feta cheese, garlic, cranberry, and sherry vinaigrette had most attendees heading back for seconds. Venison pate, foie gras, roasted pumpkin, and pumpkin seeds were layered above a toastine, courtesy of chef Stephan Bogardus, and samples of Long Island Cheese Pumpkin syrups and jams from Maya’s Jams were passed around.

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A pumpkin with such a rich history, backed by chefs, non-profits, and seed libraries passionate about preserving the variety, ultimately opens up space for culinary creativity to flourish. The afternoon progressed with the high-pitched chatter of curious attendees questioning where to buy the pumpkin, conversations with chefs on different ways to cook the Long Island pumpkin, and whispered rumors of which chef might win the cook-off. It was a space in which to make new foodie friends, eat great food, and to continue the conversation in giving the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin the recognition it deserves. Although there were first, second, and third prizes, all the chefs received a great cooking pan and a signed copy of Behind the Bottle: The Rise of Wine on Long Island by Eileen M Duffy. We ended the afternoon with “Long Island Cheese Pumpkin!” chanting and clapping from Slow Food East End members and attendees, as we toasted with our half-full pumpkin beer glasses.

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If you find yourself having some of this pumpkin in your home, test out your baking skills and try out our super easy gluten-free Long Island Cheese Pumpkin bread recipe on the blog!

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