On Pumpkin

Its spices, its homes.

The smell of fall on Long Island is the smell of home to me. It’s smoky and crisp, with a bit of wet leaf, and it conjures the vision of all us kids on the street trick-or-treating—younger ones in costume with plastic buckets, older ones in black wielding pillowcases. Orange pumpkins are carved into jack-o’-lanterns, and the seeds are roasted. Pie, later in Thanksgiving, is usually made with canned purée, but I have seen diversity re-enter the winter squash sector in the last decade: There are Cinderella pumpkins, big and flat, also called the Long Island Cheese, once the subject of fanfare, revered for their robust, rich flavor and texture upon roasting.

Any of the winter squashes will do, though. In Puerto Rico, the pumpkin most ubiquitous is a kabocha, green and white on the outside and bright orange inside. It is everywhere, almost a weed, and is often sold carved into quarters for ease. The squash is in beans, in desserts like barriguitas de vieja, a fritter, or flan de calabaza, or cazuela. It’s also a fruit of folklore, as documented by writer and illustrator Larisanjou.

Pumpkins of all sorts of everywhere I call home, and they’re native to North America. They’re a symbol of abundance, and we can use them in savory or sweet ways; we eat their flowers and seeds. The commodification of “pumpkin spice” by Starbucks into a treacly symbol of white womanhood, wrapped in Earth tones and ready for apple-picking, has made it questionable to enjoy pumpkin and all its flavors, but I’ve never wavered. Why reject squash, or apples for that matter? When I had my bakery, I made pumpkin cupcakes and cake with maple frosting, and I spiced them heavily with a blend based on cinnamon but spiked with clove.

Now that I live in Puerto Rico, pumpkin is a connection back to Long Island—a long green vine connecting island homes, sprouting yellow flowers along the way. I bake more with pumpkin than ever, because it’s so easy to find.

As I’ve baked more with pumpkin, I’ve perfected my spice blend with a mortar and pestle in hand. I brighten it with coriander to balance out all the warmth of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger. Now, it’s available from my friends at Burlap & Barrel for late fall and winter baking (the jar features a drawing of the Puerto Rican calabaza’s leaves and flowers by artist José Serrano). It will come with a recipe for a vegan flan de calabaza–cazuela hybrid. This Friday, paid subscribers will get spiced molasses shortbread and fresh pumpkin spice syrup recipes.

It’s time, I say, to remember that pumpkin is a diverse food, a food indigenous to North America, with a range of uses and deep cultural significance beyond stereotype and scorn. This pumpkin spice is just one person’s idea of what can be possible when we appreciate that.


This Friday, paid subscribers will start receiving holiday baking recipes and ideas, to culminate in a PDF booklet.

Programming Note: I’ll be taking next week off for the holiday.

Published:
On weird cake at T Magazine.

Reading:
Nothing because was on honeymoon!

Cooking:
Nothing because was on honeymoon! Notes on what we ate and what was recommended by locals in Montréal and Québec City coming soon!