The Pumpkin Book

An extract :

'Dinner's in the oven,' yelled my mother, diving out the back door, down the steps and past the cockatoo, out to yet anouther meeting and leaving me to see the younger kids didn't feed their lamb chops to the dog. 'Yours is the one without the pumpkin.'

Mine was always the one without the pumpkin. I hated pumpkin. Pumpkin looked like something the dog brought up. It was wet. It was slimy. It tasted of nothing in particular - except faintly of pumpkin, which was worse.

 

I hated pumpkin all through my childhood. Then I moved to a house near the uni with three friends. And life changed.

 

I discovered sex. I discovered Jane Austen. And I discovered pumpkin.

The pumpkin discovery was accidental. The aunt of the next door neighbour of the mother of one of my house mates (I think that's how it went) was a gardener. And as every avid gardener knows, in autumn you have too many pumpkins (and tomatoes and zucchini - but they're another story.) So she gave them away.

 

She gave one to the dentist and three to the doctor and one to the milkman and finally, all other avenues glutted with pumpkin, she gave one to her niece to give to her neighbour to give to us.

And we were stuck with it.

 

None of us knew much about cooking. None of us really wanted to. (Sex and Jane Austen and other academic and extra curricular pursuits were much more fun.) Nor did we have any spare cash to buy interesting ingredients.

But there was the pumpkin. And we were broke. And economy said 'Eat it.'

 

So we did. We had it boiled, which tasted just like the mashed pumpkin my mother served, ie disgusting. We had it baked, which would have been interesting if we could have afforded roast lamb to go with it, but we couldn't, and it didn't taste all that crash hot with boiled soya beans which were our staple (and gaseous) protein at the time.

 

There was leftover mashed pumpkin in the fridge and left over baked pumpkin in the oven... and somehow in a burst of culinary creativity I made what I referred to as 'pumpkin bread' - really a very basic cake with pumpkin added.

And it was beautiful.

 

That was the end of the pumpkin and the start of two years (till I finished my degree and finally left uni) of making pumpkin bread. I would probably still be making it if I hadn't married my first husband, who hated pumpkin bread - but that's another story too and one I won't go into.

 

The pumpkin bread has led to pumpkin fruit cake, pumpkin soup, stuffed pumpkin, spiced purées, pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin and bean soup.(My second husband loves pumpkin.) (Though I grew up in Queensland I confess I never made a pumpkin scone till I came south.) It's led to a quarter of a century's happy symbiosis with pumpkin vines: I keep them fed and watered and give them... well, not quite enough room in my garden to be honest, and they give me pumpkins and pumpkins and more pumpkins.

 

As I write it's autumn. The pumpkins are ripening. I wish they weren't. Not quite so many anyway. I always grow too many pumpkins. They look so wonderful snarling over the garden. And anyway it's an atavistic thing - you know when you've got pumpkins in the garden and the larder you'll never starve. Just get awfully sick of pumpkin.

 

So I plant them. And I tend them. And now I have to pick them and cure them on the chookshed roof (all summer a goanna sits on the roof hissing at the chooks and looking longingly in at the eggs - we have a goanna proof chook shed with a high window that only the cooks can fly through. Goannas haven't yet learnt to fly. But come winter the space is vacant and the pumpkins can sit there till their skins harden. And then we take them indoors and store them till we need them.

 

This is the hard part - finding a spot to store your pumpkins. If they all go in the garage there's no room for the car. Or a guest in the spare room. We've got pumpkins marching up the steps, two to every stair, pumpkins lining the hallway like sentinels on parade - which is all very well till they start to go off and you have interesting moist patches spreading through the house. (Pumpkins don't have to go off - at least not till spring - if you treat them properly. See further on.)

 

And we eat them which is the easy part. We rarely eat pumpkin in summer - by then we're sick of it, and anyway, you don't get really good ones - strong rich and fragrant - till late summer and autumn. That was the trouble with Mum's pumpkin - she served it all through the year (and yes, it was stringy and watery too).

 

You need to be a good cook to serve pumpkin well. Like all great peasant staples - bread, rice, polenta et al - pumpkin needs to be picked at the right time and served wth confidence and precision and a touch of imagination too.

 

From being a pumpkin hater I've become a pumpkin lover. This book was written with the zeal of a convert. (It probably shows).

© Jackie French