Hawaiian Pumpkins and Local Food

Rare Ugandan squash seeds flourish in Hawaii, leading to a partnership with a local restaurant.

  • Hawaiian squash does well in Missouri summers and stands up well to pests and disease. Their rock hard rind makes them attractive as decoration and a great keeper, yet they are delicious for the table. Thai Rai Kaw Tok Pumpkins are becoming popular with chefs in 5-star restaurants for their unique flavor and creamy buttery texture.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Team Downey chefs created squash bisque, beautifully served in a Giant Banana Ugandan squash bowl.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Robert Downey, Jr smiles holding a heart shaped cut away of a Thai Rai Kaw Pumpkin squash. Team Downey production company chefs support sustainably produced, local agriculture and used their creative talents for inspirational recipes.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Winter squash is one of the most versatile and easy to store ingredients you can grow. Perfect in soups, fried, baked, roasted, sautéed and stuffed. It is also a wonderful source of vitamins and minerals.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

As the hurricane passed by, I sheltered in the young readers section of our local library, flipping through the Enchantment of the World book on Uganda. It was uncharacteristic for a farmer to be there at midday, but I was escaping the rains that flooded my small farm one-half mile away. Seeking inspiration, I was unaware of the adventures that would come my way because of the five squash seeds I held in a waterproof bag. They had travelled to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and I wanted it to be worth it. I examined a crowned crane, bananas, and a smiling man surrounded by bougainvillea. The caption read, ‘this Bantu farmer benefits from fertile soil and dependable rain.’ “Good for him,” I thought as I headed back to the farm. I currently had neither fertile soil nor dependable rain, and I was trying to grow the seeds of his ancestors. Night temperatures were in the 40’s, and farmlands that had endured two decades of drought were now punctuated with streams. I pulled out the package labeled ‘Giant Pink Banana Variegated-Uganda’ scrolled out by Joe Simcox. I was concerned about my ability to produce a seed crop of a rare variety in a state where squash had failed since 2007.

I pushed each seed into the homemade soil of a 20-gallon container, and then planted a marker like a flag. Thinking of the Ugandan farmers 10,856 miles away, I was now connected to these seeds. There was no backing out. Joe was unreachable somewhere in the valleys and deserts of the world. I sat worrying in my MG, watching three wiper blades clear the windshield. I was in on this adventure no matter what!

I met Joe at a neighborhood gathering weeks earlier, after getting the request to come over at 9 o’clock on a Sunday night. My neighbor baited me with news that “some guy just flew in, and he knew an awful lot about squash.” They wanted me to distill the information that flowed forth. Joe was afire with a passionate discourse on tropical plants when I entered. His stories illuminated plants that were a world away from Hawaii. He seemed overly alert as many jetlagged passengers to Hawaii often do. Some of the guests shot looks in my direction, mouthing, “what is that?” I would do my best to respond or reply with a shrug of the shoulders. A long line of farmers raised me, and we knew plants like the backs of our hands, but we didn’t know them in Latin. I was struggling. And so it went, as we parted under a star-filled sky, exchanging contacts, and noting that maybe he would send me some seeds. I soon found myself opening the mailbox to tiny parcels with messages more fit for James Bond than a rookie farmer. What Joe and I had in common was that we believed that the answers were found in seed diversity; his letters closing with the phrases, “extremely rare,” and “good luck.”

Heirloom squash were creating answers at my farm. It was Jere Gettle’s Thai Rai Kaw Tok pumpkin that helped to prove my theory on historic seeds. I had grown out 27-pound versions that bespoke possibility both for sustainable farming and reclaiming a lost market. Once local food is replaced by cheap imports, it’s hard to get it back. In 1960, Hawaii supplied over 90% of its own food, importing the other 10%, but, thirty years later, the numbers were reversed. For squash, we were facing 97% imports since 2007. Hawaii’s problem was that we sat squarely on a shipping route. I learned of the continuum between seed and plate, and soon I was part of it.

The Ugandan squash sprawled and fruited under the watchful gaze of many female Melon Flies, (Bactrocera cucurbitae.) An 8# paper bag served as armor for the fruits. I sent Joe squash baby pictures, updating him on successes and painful failures. Simultaneously, I filled my car with baskets of rare squash in search of a fearless chef who would relish in these treasures. I was met with reluctance, and worse yet, apathy. I would pull them out of their grip and head for the door. Being on an island limits your options, but I knew these squash, the Ugandan farmer, Joe, and I all deserved better. I dreamed that these fruit relics could become a part of contemporary cuisine. So the rare pink-striped squash and I got back into the MG, spinning gravel as we went.

I was wiping the dust from the windshield when I listened to a smooth voice that jazz musicians would call a ‘cool cat’ on my answering machine. The message was punctuated with what sounded like stirring something on the stove. He noted that he was in search of unique produce and my squash had been recommended due to my front-of-house heirloom presentation at a local restaurant. It seemed like a dream, as I listened to it again and again.



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