Special Squash

Southerners sure know what to pickle.

If you say "pumpkin chips" to most people, they'll think of salty store-bought designer substitutes for Ruffles. Not so in South Carolina, where the expression refers to a kind of Low-Country marmalade—a chunky, sweet pumpkin topping that is best smeared on hot-from-the-oven buttermilk biscuits.

My Nana and her five sisters learned to make all sorts of traditional antebellum dishes while growing up on South Carolina's Edisto Island. Unfortunately, all of my great-grandmother's tips and tricks were passed on orally—no one bothered to write the recipes down. Luckily, Nana brought the chips north, to New York City, and for some 60 years—until she was in her late eighties—would board a bus and rumble out to the end of Long Island every autumn to gather what she called "old-timey field pumpkins". She'd lug several home to her apartment in Queens, whack them apart, and boil them down. By the height of holiday season, the shelves in her hall closet would be lined with jars of pumpkin chips. Her guests would never walk out empty-handed.

As much as I loved Nana's autumnal treat as a child, I forgot about it after she passed away. Then a recent visit to Edisto reignited my craving and sent me scavenging for recipes. I found one in Sarah Rutledge's 1847 version of The Carolina Housewife, one in the Junior League's 1950 Charleston Receipts (the Dixie cook's bible), and one in John Martin Taylor's relatively modern Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking (Bantam Books, 1992). None of these sources, though, specified the variety of pumpkin to use. My cousins in Charleston suggested the bright-orange "Halloweenie" kind. "Your grandmother never used anything other than a pale pumpkin," my dad argued. My last resort was Pink of George & Pink's, every Edistonian's favorite vegetable stand. But when I asked her about the chips, she just smiled shyly. "I remember yellow pumpkins," she said. "Nobody grows them 'round here no more."

I suspect that they're all talking about Cucurbita moschata, the creamy-skinned "cheese" pumpkin. For my own first attempt at chips, however, I had to settle for the plain old New England pie kind. When the family sat around our kitchen table to sample my test batch, Dad thought the chunks should be thinner. My sister wanted more syrup. I believe that they came pretty close.