As a child growing up in Deer Park, Ken Ettlinger learned by watching as his mother grew produce in the family’s garden and harvested and saved seeds that she stashed in carefully labeled envelopes and stored in a shoe box from year to year.
He learned by tasting that he loved her Long Island cheese pumpkin pie, the main ingredient for which she purchased because she knew its sprawling vines would take over the garden, and it was more important to her to grow vegetables for summer meals and for canning.
Ettlinger, who lives in Flanders, holds great nostalgia for the annual childhood trips with his family to a farm in Dix Hills, where his mother, Josephine, bought the sweet, brightly fleshed pumpkins in advance of her Thanksgiving baking in the 1950s.
“The memory of the fresh-baked pies that my mom made out of the pumpkins is indelible,” he said.
In the 1970s, Ettlinger, now 66 and a science professor at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead, noticed that many small seed companies were being taken over by large corporations or simply going out of business. With those changes, many seed varieties — including the cheese pumpkin — were no longer available to the seed-buying public. And so began Ettlinger’s quest.
“I searched farms on eastern Long Island for the pumpkin,” he said. “Several small farmers still grew it and saved seeds themselves from year to year, since the seeds were no longer in commerce.”
Ettlinger obtained some of the open-pollinated, heirloom fruit from a farm stand in the area, and went on a journey around eastern Long Island in pursuit of remaining varieties of the squash. He gave some seeds to his mother, and she began growing the cheese pumpkin and saving the seeds herself. Acknowledging the need to propagate the species, she joined his mission, sending packets of those seeds to members of the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. The group’s members continue to grow the pumpkin today.
Ettlinger’s farm tour yielded a lot of diversity. He found seeds that produced smaller, rounder, sweeter or creamier varieties of the cheese pumpkin, so named because of its resemblance to a flattened wheel of cheese. “I collected all that I could find,” he said.
And word got around.
Curtis Sylvester Showell, a squash and melon seed grower from Maryland who was a wholesale supplier to the seed industry, contacted Ettlinger and asked him for cheese pumpkin seeds from Long Island. Showell said a commercial seed company had been asking for them. Intent on saving dying varieties, Ettlinger sent several ounces of mixed seeds from those he had collected from the local farms. From those, Showell grew hundreds of pounds of seeds. It wasn’t long before the Long Island cheese pumpkin was reintroduced to the gardening public and became available commercially.
Despite this victory, Ettlinger balks at the suggestion that he single-handedly saved the Long Island cheese pumpkin.
“The true heroes of this story are those farmers on Long Island who saved the variety from extinction and saved the seeds to plant from year to year,” he said. “It is there on those farms that the variety was still alive.”
He said his mother, too, is a hero, as she “freely sent out dozens of packets of the cheese pumpkin to members of the Seed Savers Exchange, and those members still grow it and continue to pass the seed along to other gardeners.”
He also likens those seed savers to heroes, crediting them with saving and keeping alive older seed varieties by trading them from year to year.
Among them is Stephanie Gaylor, a local farmer who runs Invincible Summer Farms in Southold, where she grows little-known regional heirloom vegetables — including the Long Island cheese pumpkin — that thrive in Long Island’s climate, develops new varieties and promotes seed saving throughout the community. Gaylor partnered with Ettlinger in 2012 to form the Long Island Regional Seed Consortium, and with her business partner, Cheryl Frey, co-founded the Salt of the Earth Seed Co. in 2014, specifically to help keep lesser-used seeds in circulation. They regularly give away “a ton” of seeds and work to close the gap between gardeners, farmers, seed savers and chefs.
“Unless people are growing, sharing, using and eating them, they won’t survive,” Gaylor said of the lesser-used seeds.
Ettlinger agrees that is key, lamenting that the “tasty squash that can stay in good shape in a cool area of the kitchen for seven or eight months after harvest” is merely viewed as another fall decoration.
It’s only by changing that perception, Gaylor said, that the Long Island cheese could be saved. In December, she partnered with Frey and Laura Luciano, a writer and food advocate, and enlisted key players from agricultural and culinary Long Island to join The Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project, whose mission is to reintroduce growers and eaters to the virtues of the fruit. Participants are called “ambassadors.”
Ettlinger understands that if Showell, the Maryland farmer who raised the seeds to sell to large seed companies, didn’t request the small amount of seed Ettlinger had and multiplied it, the Long Island cheese would not be the “phenomenon” it is.
But seed savers like Ettlinger and those who worked with him cannot rest on their laurels.
“We continue to witness the loss of genetic diversity in our food crops as sources of regional, older varieties are no longer available, and seeds become patented or made into hybrids, which cannot be saved,” Ettlinger said.
To help counter that, he volunteers as a seed breeder at Invincible Summer Farms, where seeds of the Cutchogue cheese pumpkin and the Long Island cheese pumpkin are still maintained by Gaylor. And he bakes a lot of pies.