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More American than apple pie

by Ari LeVaux

As I was leaving his farm a few weeks ago, the farmer tossed me a parting gift in the form of a large, green and orange orb.

“It’s a special variety of pumpkin, called a Kakai, grown specifically for its seeds,” he told me.

It was curiously light for its size. My wife and kids carved it into a scary face. She then came into the house and announced how good the seeds were. “I’m not surprised, dearest,” I prepared to lecture. “It’s a special pumpkin bred for ... wait, are you eating the seeds raw?”

Indeed she was. I munched on one myself, had another, and was struck not only by how delicious they were, but also how soft. They were a bit slimy, too, but that air-dried away in a few minutes. Roasted, the seeds were divine pumpkin seed glory. They puffed out in the heat, into oblong chunks of seed meat that were bereft of the usual seed coat. Alas, there were surprisingly few seeds inside, for such a large pumpkin.

Pumpkins are a powerhouse plant in human history, one that can produce tremendous amounts of edible material in the flowers, flesh and seeds. A Native American food, pumpkins were one of Christopher Columbus’ most valuable New World acquisitions. They were originally cultivated in Spain, but soon found their way to Austria, where they were adopted in a major way.   

The province of Styria in southeast Austria became ground zero for all things pumpkin seed oil. By the 1700s, Styrian bureaucrats were regulating its production. In the late 1800s, a mutant came along in which the seed’s hard shell was replaced by a soft membrane, and the naked seeded pumpkin was born.  Its soft-seeded descendants became the progenitors of the finest edible and oilseed pumpkins in the world. Today, there are about a dozen varieties of naked-seed pumpkins, all of Austrian descent, according to Jay Gilbertson of Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil Co. in Prairie Farm, Wis. And despite its recent tune-up in Europe, pumpkin is more American than apple pie, he told me on the phone.

When they got started in 2006, Gilbertson and his partner Ken Seguine planted as many pumpkin varieties as they could get their hands on, and finally settled on a variety that grew well on their land. While he wouldn’t tell me which variety – “it’s our only secret” – he said the seeds are considerably larger and more plentiful than in a kakai pumpkin 

I went to the store and picked up a few bottles of pumpkin seed oil, one Austrian and one domestic, and played around with them. The domestic, Omega Nutrition brand, is lighter; the Austrian Castelmuro brand is darker and stronger. Both have a deep toasted smell that’s almost burnt, but not quite. It is a nutty, oily chord in baritone, and I could see why it’s occasionally used as a replacement for toasted sesame oil in Asian dishes.

The culinary uses of pumpkin seed oil are limited by the fact that you can’t cook with it, as it readily breaks down in heat. So it’s often added raw to dishes as a finishing touch. In Austria, pumpkin seed oil is added to various preparations of meat, like rare slices of beef, or mixed into salad dressings, often with cider vinegar. It is even added to sweets like vanilla ice cream, to which it imparts its nutty flavor in a pleasing way.

That night I went Styrian style and put Kürbiskernöl, as they call it, on everything. I drizzled it on salad, salmon and squash, dipped tomato slices into it, and tried to follow a recipe for pumpkin seed and walnut oil mayonnaise, which failed. 

The flavor of pumpkin seed oil is not for everyone. My wife thinks it quite disgusting and busts me whenever I try to adulterate with it. That didn’t sound right, but in any case, I at least am a fan. And it seems I’m not alone.

Pumpkin seed oil is often used medicinally as well, in Austria and elsewhere, usually for problems in the “down there” regions, such as bladder or prostate issues. It’s also high in protein and zeaxanthin, a carotenoid that’s important for eye health. Pumpkin seeds contain a diversity of fats, the balance of which can change dramatically by species. A look at some of the Amazon reviews for various pumpkin seed oils supports the idea that there might be something to these health claims, as folks are positively gushing about their prostates and bladders.  And the fact that it was grown at all in centuries-ago Austria, much less in such great quantities and with so much obsession, speaks to its value. Pumpkins placed 31st on a list of the 48 major oil seeds, in terms of oil per acre. Today, increased worldwide demand has caused India and China to become major suppliers of cheap pumpkin seeds.

However, pumpkins are hardly the most efficient way to get oilseed. Gilbertson told me it takes from 20 to 40 pumpkins’ worth of seeds to make an 8-ounce bottle of oil, which seems like an extraordinary effort. The pumpkin flesh, meanwhile, is basically inedible, he says. But the seeds and their oil alone makes the enterprise worth it.

“If I had a million bottles, I could sell every one,” Erickson said. Unfortunately, the pumpkin farming conditions in his area have not been favorable recently. “The last two years have been disastrous,” he says. “Cool summers and too much moisture. 

This made me appreciate my Kakai pumpkin all the more. Those seeds, while quite edible raw, are straight up spectacular cooked, thick, meaty and bursting with flavor. Straight out of the oven and dressed with olive oil, salt and garlic salt, they exploded in my mouth.

It also made me appreciate all pumpkin and squash seeds. Well, the yummy ones, anyway. They really are worth eating, so don’t forget the seeds when you carve that pumpkin. At the farmers market, growers can direct you to the pumpkins and squash with the best seeds.

And yeah, those seeds will probably have husks.  I chew them up and swallow, husks and all. With all the pumpkin pie I’ll soon be eating, I could use a little extra fiber.