This article originally ran in 2010 when we were in Erie with family and checked out a giant pumpkin weigh off at Port Farms in Waterford. My husband, John, grew his own giant pumpkin that year, from seeds that he had snagged the previous year on the set of a Conan O’Brien show when a monster truck destroyed the No. 1 national giant pumpkin in the studio parking lot. His year of growing a giant pumpkin gave us a window into another world, a very funny one, but one that many folks take seriously. Giant pumpkins are a lot more common these days — you can see this year’s number one Grange Fair award winner in that category at Wasson Farm.
The obesity epidemic is not restricted to people. Has anyone noticed pumpkins lately? They are huge. Check out the front yard of Joanie and Tom Spencer on Route 64 in Walker Township. Though not as big as the gourd they entered in the Pennsylvania Great Pumpkin Growers Association Weigh Off in Altoona on Oct. 2, the Spencer’s 500-pound white pumpkin gets its share of stares.
“I love watching the school buses go by and seeing the faces of the kids,” said Joanie Spencer, who has been growing giant pumpkins for four years. This year her largest pumpkin weighed 806 pounds and was No. 22 in the competition. Tom Spencer’s weighed 668.5 pounds, ranking 30th. Both were smaller than the winner of the 82 entry contest, Gerry Checkon’s 1,381-pound behemoth from Northern Cambria.
Walker Township isn’t the only place where giant pumpkins have been sighted in the county. There was a colony of them in front of Happy Valley Refreshment on Route 322 in Boalsburg last month. Even the Weis Market on South Atherton Street is sporting some jumbo-sized specimens that weigh in at about 35-40 pounds.
Pumpkin, genus Cucurbita, is a tropical annual vine, thought to have originated in the Americas. There are dozens of varieties of these winter squashes, ranging from tiny to enormous, some bred for ornamental purposes and others for eating. Cucurbita maxima are the largest pumpkins, cultivated from Hubbard squash cross-bred with Kabocha since the early 19th century. Atlantic Giant is an American variety that produces the most massive fruit in the world, in the range of 50 to 1,000 pounds. This is not the type of pumpkin that you want for your pie, as this variety tends to have more fibrous and watery flesh. Most of the pumpkins that become pies are grown near Morton, Ill., where Nestle operates a huge pumpkin packing plant that accounts for 90 percent of the canned pumpkin on our grocery shelves.
Interest in raising giant pumpkins is contagious. Once you tune in to the phenomenon, you are hooked. The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth is an organization dedicated to promoting interest in the hobby, which requires commitment. The club is global in scope, with regional associations that sponsor weigh-ins during the harvest season and provide networking support year-round.
Growing a giant pumpkin is no small task. The grower must be committed to the endeavor and vigilant about removing the female flowers that might grow into other pumpkins on the vine and compete for nutrients with the big mahoff. There are proprietary recipes for fertilizer and tricks that the winners use, such as fanning the pumpkin to keep it dry. Many are elevated on palettes as they mature to ease the harvest. You better have a few friends in the heavy equipment business when it comes time to moving your giant pumpkin. Cranes, hoists and tractor trailers all prove useful.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BAKED STUFFED PUMPKIN
This is a recipe that works with just about any size pumpkin, though not a giant one. It must be able to fit in your oven. Blue pumpkins make especially appealing containers. It is a show stopping presentation that is easy and delicious, when you scoop out the cheesy filling along with some of the inside flesh of the pumpkin.
1 pumpkin, any size (last week I used a blue one from Tait Farm that just about filled up the oven)
Bread cubes, enough to fill the cavity of the pumpkin (I used a loaf of Gemelli Focaccia, about 4 quarts volume for a big pumpkin)
Grated cheese, to layer with the bread (I used about a pound of local baby Swiss from Nittany Organics)
Vegetable stock (I used about a quart and a half of homemade vegetable stock, lightly salted)
Fresh thyme leaves
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut off the top (this can be the most difficult part with some very hard varieties.) Place the pumpkin on a very sturdy baking tray as it will be very heavy when filled if it is a large one. Scoop out the pumpkin and remove the seeds and any stringy fibers in the cavity. Layer bread cubes and cheese to fill the hollow, sprinkling each layer with a few leaves of fresh thyme if you have any. Pour on the stock to moisten the filling fairly well. Place the top back on the pumpkin and bake for an hour or two, depending on the size. Small pumpkins can cook in 45 minutes or so. The pumpkin will soften on the inside but the outer skin will remain firm and intact. Leave some space in the oven for the top to rise during baking as the bread cubes swell with the stock.