Pumpkins, the Stress of Independence, and Lessons from Bon Jovi / by Matthew Cook

Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame, 

Stressin’, you give independence a bad name.

Ok, I know that’s a terrible misappropriation of Bon Jovi’s song, but hopefully you see my point. Let’s be honest and open up about freelance work life a bit. You can generally categorize self employed people into two groups. The first are motivated by the fact that there is always more to be done than can be accomplished. They accept that they will never accomplish everything and cope with focus and unearthing the best possibilities. They are the Explorers and will eventually burn out on a semi-predictable cycle as they deplete their ability to see through the fog. The second can’t handle uncertainty and the volume of demands for their time. This pushes them to accomplish super-human amounts of work. Completeness is their goal, and they’ll make the hard choices to ensure it’s accomplished. They hit impossible deadlines and expect the same from others. They are Gladiators, and are prone to exhaustion, panic, and paralysis—sometimes chronic.

Explorers are stressed by their dependence on constant discovery and curation. Gladiators are stressed by the need for order, resilience, and completion.

Bon Jovi helps me make a good point: Each of these types plays the game successfully, but the impossibility of sustaining long-term gives independence a bad name. I guess you could say independence isn’t a good partner to go steady with unless you’re constantly changing your relationship boundaries. 

There are two ways that I deal with this. One is to create a remote independent team structure for work life, the other is to do things like make coffee and cook pumpkins. Let’s dig into the fun one. Maybe I’ll talk about creating water cooler moments from 2000+ miles away another day.

I discovered a few years ago that I need a generative outlet to avoid the side effect of my Explorerness. Normal work life often leaves me feeling creatively quenched; over-extended. Some things regenerate as opposed to draining me: throwing on a pottery wheel, coffee, and video games to name a few. Throwing pottery is an impossibility for me at this point in life, video games take too much mental and time investment to keep up with, and coffee is perfect. I’ve found a lot of creative satisfaction in engineering a great cup of coffee. Selecting beans, roast, age, grind, prep method, etc. there’s a huge amount of influencers for a single cup. Manipulating all of those factors to create a great cup is fun and gives a new meaning to artisan coffee for me. It’s something I do for myself, and it’s something that’s privately enriching. 

This fall, pumpkins have become my “new world” endeavor to maintain work drive. I still do the coffee thing, but I’m branching out. Every year my family goes to the Farmer’s Market an hour up the road toward Asheville, NC. We buy all sorts of fall foods, my joy is always in finding an excellent pumpkin for our fall pies and breads. I’ve gotten carried away.

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Pumpkins can be enormously complex as an ingredient, just like coffee. The United States grows around 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkin each year (over 680M kg) across a purportedly unknown number of species in the Cucurbita Genus. It’s a relatively ambiguous Genus and the different species are difficult to classify given continual intermingling and domestication—no species is separated from others. The easiest way to differentiate them is by their five main categorical species: agryrosperma, ficifolia, maxima, moschata, and pepo. 

Adding to slight confusion, pumpkins are squashes, but not all squashes are pumpkins. Since both are the same Genus and flavors are similar, it’s widely overlooked in commercial and culinary context (chances are that your canned pumpkin has a good bit of non-pumpkin squash in it). Fun fact, a pumpkin is classified by botanists as a type of berry. I’ll wait here while you Google that.

These different factors are a gold mine for creative exercise since you can’t broadly prescribe recipes or cooking techniques to the ingredient since it varies by species.

So, as part of my creatively regenerating exercise I took a few notes on my pumpkins (and squashes) and offer you my findings from this year’s harvest. I selected 7 different species of Cucurbita. Yes, I mingled my squashes and pumpkins. Some of these are native to the Carolinas, and some are more global in origin:

  • Blue Hubbard
  • Butternut
  • Jarrahdale
  • Acorn
  • Cinderella
  • Candy Roaster
  • Fairytale
  • Kabocha

I decided to break all of these pumpkins down into a puree/paste. I don’t cook whole pieces of pumpkin regularly, but I do make pies, bread, cakes, etc. My method for prepping the pumpkin was as follows:

  • Clean exterior.
  • Scrape inside.
  • Cut into steam-able chunks
  • Steam until softened. I baked a few here and there.
  • Carve out the meat from the shell.
  • Blend the meat into a desired consistency.
  • Bag in two-cup portions for storage and use.

Here were my experiences with each:

Blue Hubbard

  • Very sweet and fragrant, even before cooking. 
  • Not a lot of meat on the shell.
  • A very wet pumpkin.
  • When cooked the skin looks like a waxy green toad.
  • Baked into a pie, it’s almost too sweet, I’m having to shorten sugar in my recipes with Blue Hubbard.

Acorn

  • Soft and mild tasting/smelling. 
  • Came out so thick that I had difficulty blending it.
  • Extremely squashy smelling and tasting, not very sweet, but has a wonderful consistent creamy texture.

Butternut

  • Ridiculously easy to cook and scrape.
  • Blended really smoothly, and came out as a thick paste. Creamy and yellow.
  • Smelled of melons when fresh, dulled when cooked.
  • Gets the most inappropriate comments due to it’s shape (thanks @joshuajantz and @wtflow).
  • Baked a pie with half Hubbard and half Butternut. Perfect flavor.

Candy Roaster

  • Really wet meat.
  • Skin pulverized while steaming. If you let it into your recipe, it bakes hard and ruins pies.
  • Comes out light orange. Almost the color of Mango. 
  • Maybe I should have baked this pumpkin. I grew up eating this, so I know how difficult it is to steam.
  • Still feels turgid even when cooked because it holds so much water. The most wet pumpkin I had. It sweat water the entire process, and I had to strain it before bagging because it was still so wet. 

Fairytale

  • Smelled like cantaloupe.
  • Came out BRIGHT orange.
  • Held a large amount of water, just not quite as much as a Candy Roaster.
  • Taste when steamed is light, creamy, and sweet. Not sure what I’ll make this into yet.

Cinderella

  • The most fragrant when I opened it up–the smell, even before cooking, filled my house. Insides looked like cotton candy.
  • Completely pulverized when steamed and turned a grayish green in some spots.
  • Tasted like a pumpkin, but a little more like a yellow summer squash than any other pumpkin I’ve tasted. I’m not very impressed. This will probably be made into a bread or a soup.

Jarrahdale (Australian)

  • One of two pumpkins I’m most unfamiliar with from this year.
  • Pretty doggone heavy, and really hard skin. Don’t cut yourself trying to carve this pumpkin open. 
  • The interior is just as rock hard. Beautiful deep orange flesh though. 
  • Took much longer to cook. Probably 2x as long as any other. 
  • Just like the Hubbard, it turned out looking like a waxy green toad. 
  • Turned out to be the most…chalky of all the pumpkins. Not a great amount of confidence in this gourd.
  • Made into a bread and a pie. Really good flavor (despite my misgivings)—heavy hints of honey.

Kabocha

  • This is the other pumpkin I was completely unfamiliar with.
  • Outer shell of the pumpkin was tough and took a lot of strength to cut through. 
  • Extremely dry, but that’s probably because it didn’t sit for a few weeks after harvesting. 
  • Pleasant pasty texture with a mild sweet flavor. Most similar to a sweet potato in texture. 
  • Soft homogenized orange color. 

That’s it for my pumpkin adventures so far. The more I take on small side endeavors like this, the more I realize how helpful they can be. I exhort you, find something to invest in personally. You’ll be surprised at how it influences your work life and family life. Whether running, coffee, or pumpkins, these passions can add a level of interest and richness that bleeds across borders in life—they make me a better person to work with. 

So as you eat some pumpkin pie this season (which is actually a pudding, not a pie if you read the definition of egg coagulations through heat pretty strictly), think about how you can add richness to your life and make yourself a sharper person to work with.

As a parting shot, here’s Bon Jovi being thankful.