Modern Isn’t Always Better:
A Regional Original Makes A Stunning Comeback
Few things are more American than pumpkin pie, except perhaps the humble squash itself. Pumpkins are an ancient food source, indigenous to the Americas and long utilized by native people as a dietary staple. Over millennia of agricultural experimentation, our first farmers developed the Three Sisters practice of growing corn, beans, and squash together as a vital system for feeding the community, as well as maintaining the health of the land. The Long Island Cheese Pumpkin is one of the oldest varieties cultivated in the United States, adapted for over a century to thrive in our regional climate.
More than generic patch-dwellers, cheese pumpkins have genuine panache. As members of the species C. moschata, they are much more similar to butternuts and crooknecks than the disposable Halloween varieties (C. pepo). Hidden inside an elegant buff-colored shell, its dense, smooth, intensely orange flesh is ideal for cooking and baking. So called for their resemblance to a wheel of aged fromage, these pumpkins are extremely versatile and shine in applications far beyond a prize-winning pie. Not only is the flesh delicious, but the shell, flowers, and seeds are also edible.
While the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin was renowned in the 19th century, receiving a particularly enthusiastic homage in an 1855 issue of Michigan Farmer magazine, the industrialization of agriculture and modernization of food processing proved nearly fatal to this cherished variety. Its seed remained available in catalogues up to the 1960s, but seed companies began to favor varieties better suited to new harvesting and processing equipment. Rounder pumpkins with less grooved shells rolled easily off conveyor belts and proved more convenient than the beautiful and flavorful heirloom.
The cheese pumpkin’s descent into oblivion was single-handedly halted and reversed by Long Island seed saver and educator, Ken Ettlinger. Noticing the dwindling biodiversity around him, and the dearth of cheese pumpkin seed available, he began growing it himself in the 1970s from pumpkins found at East End farmers markets. In a successful effort to further protect and strengthen Long Island’s vegetable bounty, Ken founded a local seed bank, the Long Island Seed Consortium. Because of his efforts, cheese pumpkin seed – all but commercially unavailable by the 1990s – returned to widespread circulation in catalogues.
The seed-saving community is a tight one and, in time, Ken Ettlinger met Ken Greene of the Hudson Valley Seed Library. You know what the almanacs say: When it comes to cheese pumpkins, two Kens are definitely better than one. Long Island Ken remains a staunch supporter of the gorgeous cucurbita, and Hudson Valley Ken has become an official ambassador for the squash. Steph Gaylor, fellow Long Island farmer, seed saver, and founder of the Long Island Seed Consortium, supplied all the seed for Kitchen Cultivars’ grow-out, which were grown from those originally shared with her by Ettlinger — thus completing the circle of squash.
Thanks to a few passionate seed activists, the cheese pumpkin is back where it belongs, from patches to pies, from gardens and farms stands to home kitchens, from Long Island to the Hudson Valley, and beyond.
Seeds for the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin are available for sale from Hudson Valley Seed Company. A portion of sales will be donated to the Long Island Regional Seed Consortium’s Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project.
Long Island Regional Seed Consortium