“Do dentists celebrate Halloween?” my son Thomas asked.
Perhaps young Willy Wonka inspired this question. Wired into braces and headgear, the future chocolatier lost his entire Halloween stash to a domineering dentist of a father. Or maybe Thomas recalled Halloween last year: we lived in South Africa, where some families fervently oppose the occasion and most remain indifferent.
Either way, Thomas has learned that not everyone likes Halloween—though you’d never guess it here in Canada. By mid-September, our local Dollar Store had replaced aisles of knickknacks with black capes and plastic severed limbs. Throughout October, homeowners festooned windows and lined driveways with skeletons, wispy ghosts, and that icon of Halloween, the pumpkin head.
Today’s tradition of carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns derives from the Celtic festival of Samhain. As summer falls into darkness, the Celts believed spirits could pass into our world. They etched faces into vegetables – usually turnips – to welcome deceased relatives and ward off malevolent forces. Irish immigrants to the US and Canada used pumpkins, easier to carve and native to the continent, for the same purpose. Of course, even before trick-or-treating and jack-o’-lanterns, pumpkins and many other winter squash adorned North American hearths and tables at harvest time. Which brings me to this month’s theme: squash.
My boys have figured out this column. They know I pick a food each month and experiment with recipes. They also know I use dinnertime – their dinner plates – as test lab. And while molasses month stirred curiosity and mild trepidation, no one heralds squash month but me.
“Not squash! I don’t like squash!”
So I decide to ease the family into squash by first learning how they grow. We drive 45 minutes along Nova Scotia’s south shore to Watershed Farm, where Camelia and her co-workers raise organic produce and livestock. A heavy autumn sky threatens, but the kids tumble from the car to greet three farm kittens, a half-dozen ducks, and the yelp of heritage turkey hens.
Cats, ducks, and boys in tow, Camelia leads me to the squash patch. Thomas and Alex immediately abandon our mission to chase the orange kitten among the pumpkins. Four boots and four paws tramp on vines and leap over squash. I can only hope that in all that leaping (and my consequent shooing), the boys observe that pumpkins come in many varieties – the elliptical Rouge Vif D'etampes; the rich, brown Musque de Provence; thewarty Knuckle Head – and that those meandering, delicate vines link fruit to plant. But I don’t quiz; they’re having too much fun.
At the farmers’ market the following week, I choose a hubbard, carnival, and spaghetti squash, as well as a good-sized pumpkin and three decorative baby pumpkins (one for each son; I can’t resist). I scour my cookbooks and in Diane Seed's The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces find the perfect recipe for finnicky boys: Spaghetti Vesuvio. Named after the famous volcano, this tomato and mozzarella sauce looks “like streams of molten lava” when poured over hot pasta. Aha! I’ll just replace spaghetti pasta with spaghetti squash and we’ll have ourselves a winner.
But my Vesuvius fails to erupt. Pasta, I conclude, holds heat far longer than squash; my “lava” doesn’t flow, it congeals. And though the sauce still tastes great, that stringy vegetable posing as starch fools no one. Mama eats half a volcano for lunch the following day.
Moving on. Among our most dog-eared picture books is Helen Cooper’s Pumpkin Soup. Well before my boys could read, they’d memorized its catchy cadence and rhymes. They love the cat, the squirrel, and the duck, who subsist on homemade pumpkin soup, “The best you’ve ever tasted.” Might this literary conditioning predispose my boys to enjoy a real bowl of pumpkin soup?
On a bright Sunday morning, I turn to my favorite vegetarian cookbook, Rebar Modern Food Cookbook by Audrey Alsterberg and Wanda Urbanowicz, and adapt a roasted butternut recipe to fit our on-hand ingredients. By dinnertime, I have a simmering pot of roasted hubbard squash, red peppers, tomatoes, and onions. Let the cajoling begin!
“It’s pumpkin soup, guys! You know, ‘the best you’ve ever tasted?’”
Jon, our current veggie-eating champion, tucks in, but Alex and Thomas won’t try a bite. I continue to prod until spoons and mouths connect. Alex concedes, the soup is “okay,” while Thomas volleys my literary cue: “Blech! The worst I’ve ever tasted!”
A large pumpkin and a carnival squash remain in our fruit bowl and I’m losing heart. Are my kids more picky, less adventuresome, than most? I consider retreat, if not total surrender, and dust off my copy of Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids Favorite Meals by Missy Chase Lapine. I find no squash recipes inside, but plenty of ways to disguise fruit and vegetables in foods with immediate kid-appeal. I could, for example, slip a quarter-cup of mashed pumpkin into a vat of mac and cheese. I could bury pureed carnival under pizza toppings. I could, but my goal is broader than sneaking healthy food into my kids. I want the boys to know where that food comes from, what it looks like in the field and how to cook it at home. I want them to appreciate that healthy food prepared with care actually does taste good—and we’re darn lucky to have it.
I resume my flagrant use of vegetables.
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver delights in finding two pages of pumpkin recipes in her local paper. She’d worried folks had forgotten pumpkins are edible, not merely decorative. As she looks through the recipes, however, she sees they call for canned pumpkin. “Come on, people,” she writes. “Doesn’t anybody remember how to take a big old knife, whack open a pumpkin, scrape out the seeds, and bake it?”
I have three young boys in the house; surely we can whack open a pumpkin. I hand Thomas a big old knife—then snatch it back. We’ll do this together. Very carefully, we cleave the pumpkin in two, claw out the seeds, and place the halves in the oven. When soft and golden, we spoon the flesh into the food processor and whip up beautiful organic puree.
I turn to Rebar Modern Food Cookbook once again, to their recipe for pumpkin-millet muffins. Pre-motherhood, I made these muffins often and love the unexpected crunch of toasted millet mixed with satiny pumpkin. Thomas helps to load the batter into festive Frankenstein muffin papers and Alex and Jon, who played outside though most of our baking, gravitate to the kitchen as the muffins cool on the table.
“What kind did you make?” Alex asks.
“Oh, Mom! You know I don’t like pumpkin!” He stomps back outside, bearing the full weight of six-year-old angst. Soon, he wanders back again.
“Just try a bite,” I say to all three boys. “You can add any topping you like.”
They try it. They like it—a lot. The boys descend upon the table and devour three or four muffins each. In the crumbly aftermath, muffin papers, blobs of butter and honey everywhere, Alex wipes his hands across his shirt (sigh) and says, “You know, Mom, you could have not told me about the pumpkin. Then I would have tried a muffin right away.” And I thought mothers were mind-readers.
The carnival squash remains in our fruit bowl, alone and expectant. It will keep all winter but I won’t wait long to try another recipe. For now, I’m happy to end this month on a squash-loving high note. Those three baby pumpkins will join an enormous jack-o’-lantern on the front porch. We’ll celebrate Halloween North American-style, but we also know pumpkins aren’t merely ghoulish: whacked and whipped, they’re downright wicked!
Pumpkin Millet Muffins
From Rebar Modern Food Cookbook by Audrey Alsterberg and Wanda Urbaniwicz
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups pumpkin puree
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup millet, toasted in a hot, dry skillet until golden
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1 cup unbleached flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Preheat over to 350F. Prepare muffin tins. Combine eggs, oil, buttermilk, sugar, vanilla and pumpkin in a large bowl. Stir in oats. Add toasted millet and pumpkin seeds.
In a separate bowl, sift the dry ingredients together. Add the dry mix to the wet mix and gently stir to combine. Do not over mix or the muffins will be dry and tough.
Fill muffin tins with batter and bake 25 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.