I met up with three farmers today out at High Ground Organics farm, next to the ramshackle Redman House in Watsonville. The occasion? Jerry Thomas's nephew, Steven Pedersen, had planted EIGHTY kinds of pumpkins and squashes on a pretty small piece of land—like an acre or less. The vines had gone nuts, some of them twenty feet away from where they'd been planted, and Steven and his assistant, Joanna Johnson, were out there to see if they could make order of chaos.
It was like trying to detangle three hundred garden hoses.
Steve would find a vine and start tugging it, trying to see where it led. This was not always successful, but after about two hours of some pretty meticulous and systemized work, the handwritten map Joanna had created in the beginning of the season was beginning to look pretty accurate.
Joanna's system was to carry a crate to each wooden stake, which showed the name of the pumpkin or squash in that plot of land...an area about five or six feet wide and fifteen feet or so long. Once she determned the variety of pumpkin, she would create a label for the crate, and into that crate went the harvested vegetables. Some are for eating, others are merely for decoration—but they make long-lasting decorations at that.
I asked Steve if he cooked: so many farmers have told me that loving good food is why they farm. He was no exception: "I cooked in restaurants for eight years, in Southern California and San Francisco, before I became a farmer." Josh and Jerry, too, were particularly good about knowing the pumpkins which are famous for their flavor. Steve had been smitten with the flavor of Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash, which are beautiful and heart-shaped.
The idea was to select eight or ten varieties for next year, and the requirements seem to be these:
1) Aesthetically palpable. The Georgia Candy Roaster is supposed to have a superior taste, but these zeppelins were over two feet long, a little daunting to the average home cook. You'd need a chainsaw for them.
As we walked slowly through the patch, I'd hear one of the farmers exclaim over the beauty of one or another variety. If things are too odd, they won't sell, but some of the pumpkins were so ugly they were beautiful. (The Galeux d'Eysines comes to mind.)
Jerry mentioned how much easier it was to get people to try new and unusual things now. "Back in the seventies, I grew some of those purple green beans, and took them around to the little farmstands that used to be a lot more abundant. I remember one old guy saying, 'We can't even get folks to eat green beans. How am I going to get them to try purple?!' "
2) Vigorous producers. Some of the vines had produced no squashes at all. Steve told me that the South American varieties must need much longer days, and much greater heat, than his coastal farm can provide.
3) Superior flavor, if not being grown for ornamental purposes. I've mentioned before the idea that farmers now have to have more than just strong backs to succeed. They have to be able to discuss cooking and recipes and flavors with their customers, so people will be confident they're getting a tasty variety. In this department, the Thomas-Pedersen clan excels.
And some were being grown just for their beauty, in a variety of colors and shapes. Not making a return appearance are the Yugoslavian Finger Fruit Squash. Jerry said, "We grew those last year. They kind of scared people." No kidding: they look like something that would make you grow an extra leg if you ate them.
Let me just say that a squash patch in autumn is not the prettiest thing in the world. The vines are browning and dried out. It's a mess. But I didn't care: beyond all the tangles and crumbling matter, we were looking for treasures.
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If any of you adventurous cooks want to try some of these squashes, visit the Redman House Farmstand, just off Highway One at the Riverside exit in Watsonville. (Right next to the Chevron Station.)
High Ground Organics is partnered with Mariquita Farm in the Two Small Farms CSA. Their CSA customers will be the beneficiaries of Steve's wild-ass squash project: the luckies!
Awesome way to spend two hours out of my day. Thanks, Steve and Jerry and Josh!
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: “Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.” — Jim Davis
Thanks for visiting.