While South Carolina autumns aren’t always heralded by a nip in the air, there’s one thing you can count on: There will be pumpkins aplenty to prove the season has officially arrived.
Fields of green and orange are a gorgeous sign that fall is about to deliver some of her most treasured gifts. In keeping with Mother Nature’s rhythm, it won’t be long before local farms issue invitations to pick from their well-tended pumpkin patches. No RSVP needed—pack up the kids, take a drive and partake in one of the most highly anticipated family outings of the year.
But before you hit the backroads, consider South Carolina’s interesting history with pumpkins. Indigenous to this continent and a close relation of winter squash, they are considered an important foodway of Native Americans, who were eating pumpkins long before the Europeans arrived. In South Carolina, the Cherokee were prolific growers of pumpkins, cultivating them along the Oolenoy River in Pickens County. By some accounts, a good many of these were monstrous in size, which made for an impressive landscape.
Prior to being displaced in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the Cherokee (who lived in a village called UWharrie) shared the land with settlers. According to local folklore, a tipsy settler settled a spirited argument about what to name the community when he pointed to the pumpkins around them and proclaimed, “Men, jest quit arguin' 'bout the whole thing and call 'er Punkin Town.” That may or may not be the way Pumpkintown, SC, was born, but you can rest assured the pumpkins that grew there served as inspiration. Today, the community is practically pumpkin-less. But it is home to the annual Pumpkintown Festival.
The Newberry, SC, area is known for growing the Dutch Fork pumpkin, considered a descendant of the Cherokee pumpkin. Sometimes referred to as the Old-Timey Cornfield Pumpkin, the Dutch Fork is muted tan in color, lobed and sometimes irregular in shape. It is easily distinguished from the beloved orange pumpkins we associate with autumn, but not just by virtue of its looks. While most pumpkins can be eaten, few varieties are as tasty as the Dutch Fork. Mildly sweet and far less stringy, they make for prime pumpkin eating. Seed savers have made it possible for a small handful of SC farmers to continue growing the heirloom pumpkin. When you visit farms and markets this fall, keep your eyes peeled and snag a Dutch Fork—if you find one.
More commonly, you’ll find the cultivars, Jack O’ Lantern, Mammoth Gold, Howden, Autumn Gold, Ghost Rider and others, when you go to a pick-your-own farm or buy from a market. The round, brightly colored globes usually have sturdy stems for easy handling and are perfect for carving toothy grins. Sugar pumpkins, like Amish Pie and Small Sugar, lend themselves well to pumpkin pie. Look for small, heavy fruit.
Whether you are picking from a patch or a bin at your local market, here are some tips for choosing the best pumpkins.
If you are cutting your pumpkin pick straight off the plant, leave at least 1 inch of stem and wear gloves as pumpkin vines can be prickly.
Choose pumpkins that are uniformly firm and free of cracks or splits.
Gently press a fingernail against the pumpkin skin. If you can easily penetrate it, the pumpkin was picked too early.
Pick pumpkins with bright green stems. If it’s shriveled, the pumpkin has been sitting a while.
Choose pumpkins according to the intended use. For carving, look for large pumpkins that are uniform in shape. For cooking, small, solid fruit is desirable.
When taking your pick to the car, hold it in your arms to protect the stem.
Clean your pumpkin, if necessary, with a bit of bleach water.
Place your pumpkin in a cool place to discourage rotting.
These SC farms are among the many offering fall pumpkin patch picking. Call ahead to confirm availability.
Thinking of eating your pumpkins? You should be. Pumpkin is a good source of vitamin A, with a ½ cup delivering more than 100 percent of the daily vitamin A requirement and just 26 calories. The seeds are high in protein and fat. Here are some tips for preparing pumpkins for consumption, courtesy of Clemson Extension.
To roast pumpkin seeds: Carefully wash pumpkin seeds to remove the clinging fibrous pumpkin tissue. Seeds can be dried until crisp in the sun, a dehydrator at 115°to 120°F for one to two hours, or an oven on warm for three to four hours. Stir frequently to avoid scorching. Toss dried pumpkin seeds with oil (1 teaspoon per cup of seeds). Salt or season to taste. Roast in a preheated oven at 250°F for 10 to 15 minutes.
To freeze pumpkin: Select a full-colored mature pumpkin with fine texture. Wash, cut into cooking-size sections and remove seeds. Cook until soft in boiling water, steam, a pressure cooker or an oven. Remove pulp from rind and mash. To cool, place pan containing pumpkin in cold water and stir occasionally. Package, leaving ½-inch headspace. Freeze.
To bake pumpkin: Wash the outside and cut crosswise. Clean out the seeds and pulp and put flesh-side down in a baking pan with a bit of water. Bake at 350°F for 1½ hours or until flesh is tender.
To make pie filling: Blend a 13-ounce can of evaporated skim milk, 2 eggs, 2 cups of baked mashed pumpkin, ¾ cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon cloves, ½ teaspoon ginger and ½ teaspoon salt. Use in your favorite pie crust recipe.
If you want to experience a unique South Carolina pumpkin treat, consider this old-school recipe for pumpkin chips. If you’re thinking something akin to potato chips, you couldn’t be more off-base. Confused? Here’s a hint: In the Lowcountry, some folks refer to preserves as “chips.” That’s right. Pumpkin chips are a sweet, chunky preserve dating back to 1800s South Carolina. They pair well with meats or can be eaten as a snack. Try this recipe, adapted from the iconic SC cookbook, “Charleston Receipts.”
Pompion (Pumpkin) Chips
(Note: The French Huguenot settlers in Charleston often referred to pumpkin as “pompion.”) 1 firm, medium-size pumpkin 4 lemons, juiced (save the skins) 1 cup sugar for every 2 cups diced pumpkin
Peel the pumpkin and cut into ½-inch squares. Add sugar, adjusting the amount according to the amount of pumpkin chips you have. Add lemon juice. Let stand overnight, then boil until the chips are clear and transparent. With a slotted spoon, remove the chips and continue boiling the syrup until it thickens a little. Slice the lemon skins into strips and boil separately in water until soft. (If the lemon peel is thick, remove some of the white pith before boiling.) Add the chips and softened lemon skins to the thickened syrup and bring to a boil. Place in jars and seal. Yield: 6-8 pints
Pumpkin Food and Drink
South Carolina restaurants, bakeries and breweries are hotspots for everything pumpkin when fall rolls around. Here are some suggestions for palate-pleasing pumpkin food and drink. Check with each establishment for availability as most of these menu items are seasonal.