What looks like cheese and tastes like beer?

October 19, 2016

It’s autumn and time for joy or horror, depending upon your taste. No not Halloween horror or treats, but the ubiquitous pumpkin lattes, pumpkin donuts, pumpkin muffins and now pumpkin beer. Actually pumpkin beer has a long history in America.

When the colonists first came to America, beer was one of the drinks of choice. Unfortunately beer needed malt, and malt had to either be imported at great expense or grains grown and malted, a skill few colonists mastered or had time for.

Fortunately pumpkins easily grew in their native soil and have such a high natural sugar content that they could do the job of malt. Pumpkin beer was born! 

Cookbooks and farmers almanacs along Long Island Sound often mentioned the outstanding qualities of a regional favorite pumpkin, a 6- to 10-pound flat buff-skinned pumpkin that looked for all the world like a wheel of cheese, the aptly named Long Island Cheese Pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata). The flesh is superb for that most Yankee dessert, pumpkin pie.

The fruits have firm fine-grained flesh that holds up well in cooking. 

Originally from Central or South America, this tasty squash grew in the northeast by the 1500s. 

In 1807, Bernard McMahon introduced the Long Island Cheese pumpkin to the wider commercial market, and this regional favorite gained a wide following. 

Sadly, in the 1960s this heirloom began to disappear from seed catalogs, replaced with hybrids and varieties better suited to mechanical harvesting.

The flat Long Island Cheese pumpkins were difficult to roll on the new field conveyor belts and the deep ribs made these cheese pumpkins harder to peel in large quantities.

Even farmers on Long Island stopped growing it and seeds became scarcer with each passing year.

Luckily in the late 1970s, a dedicated seed saver, Ken Ettlinger, founded the Long Island Seed Project, a local seed bank and kept this heirloom alive.

To plant directly in your garden, sow seeds in late spring after all danger of frost. The soil should be at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Ideal soil pH is 6.5 but they will do well with a pH between 5.5 and 7.5. 

Plant two seeds about an inch deep every 3 to 4 feet apart foot in rows 12 feet apart. Once the seedlings are up, you can thin any double seedlings to a single pumpkin plant. 

Like all squash, Long Island Cheese Pumpkins can become infected with downy mildew, powdery mildew, phytophthora and bacterial wilt, though hopefully not all at once. Keep the plants from overcrowding and allow good air circulation and it will go a long way in preventing these diseases. Be sure to rotate your crops, so never plant squash in the same place two years in a row. 

Pick Long Island Cheese pumpkins when they change to a deep rich buff color. Cut the fruit from the vines using a sharp knife or loppers. Never pull the fruits from the vine or you may snap off the stem and the pumpkins won’t keep very long. Cure the pumpkins in the garden for five to seven days or bring them indoors to cure in a spot with good air flow. 

In addition to making sensational pies, you can puree the string-less flesh of Long Island Cheese pumpkins into thick soups, use as a filling for ravioli, or even brine it for an unusual pickle. And of course infuse it into the mash of pumpkin beer, lattes be damned.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.