ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. (AP) — The great artificial pumpkin-flavoring assault on our taste buds every fall can’t hold a candle to the natural supremacy of the majestic pumpkin, Marilyn Alice Tuckman says.
For her, the comparison is almost literal. The childhood memory of a candle inside a jack-o’-lantern ignited a pumpkin obsession. It led to Tuckman’s career as a food taste tester and, now, to her authorship of a new cookbook devoted to the season’s best-known squash.
“That (jack-o’-lantern candle) gives off a roasted-pumpkin aroma,” says Tuckman, whose Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Black Pepper Croutons is one of 100 gourd-blessed recipes in her “For the Love of Pumpkins” cookbook. “It sparks a little fire in you.”
Tuckman’s keen sense of smell and discerning palate led to her career as a sensory food taster and former quality control and laboratory technician for a major bakery and condiment manufacturer. But pumpkins hold a special place in her heart.
“This is my manuscript,” Tuckman says, plopping a bulging binder on the kitchen table in her Elk Grove Village home. “It weighs 13 pounds.”
Her ode to pumpkins is heavier than the 5-pound pumpkins she prefers for cooking because there is so much more to pumpkins than meets the eye, Tuckman says in a reverent tone.
“Pumpkins helped our settlers get through some brutal winters,” she says, explaining how gourd-forsaken Pilgrims wouldn’t have been able to stave off starvation. “It’s a part of us.”
For modern Americans, pumpkins remind us of holidays, loved ones and good times, Tuckman says. Her first personal pumpkin story is older than she is. Her mother, pregnant with her, developed such a pumpkin craving that she baked a pumpkin chiffon pie and ate the entire dessert herself.
“Pumpkin offers a unique depth of flavor that other winter squashes don’t have. It’s nutritious. It’s healthy,” Tuckman gushes. “Pumpkin is wonderful to use in foods. It’s good for your body. You take in its vitality and become vital yourself. Pumpkin will make you beautiful. Eat it.”
A fit, young-looking cook who will turn 65 in November, Tuckman’s love affair with the pumpkin began as a child growing up in the unincorporated Columbus Manor community near Oak Lawn with her brother, Frank, and parents Frank and Millie Kratochvil.
“At one end of the road, we had a swamp, and at the other end, a cornfield,” she says.
Her father was a machinist, not a farmer.
“We didn’t go to a farm for pumpkins. We went to the gas station,” Tuckman says. “They’d have huge piles of pumpkins. Our eyes would get so big. It was like a ritual. We’d go every year.”
She and her brother would carve their pumpkins and spread the seeds on a baking sheet, which they’d set to dry on the furnace in the utility room.
“We’d forget about them until the next year,” says Tuckman. “The seeds were black and burnt, and we’d take the cookie sheet out so we could put the new one up there.”
Collecting dozens and dozens of pumpkin recipes through the years, Tuckman sat down in April 2007 with the idea of adding her own touches to old recipes and serving up her own in a book.
“It took a year to write it, and two years to photograph it,” Tuckman says. She wore out one oven cooking every recipe and took all the photos herself.
The book has one ingredient even more important than pumpkins.
“If it didn’t have love in it, it would be worthless,” she says.
Admirers attest to the value of her work.
“The whole book is as beautiful as she is,” says longtime neighbor Barb Larson. “Her blueberry-pumpkin muffins are out of this world.”
Larson’s husband, Bob, can go on and on about another favorite.
“I like pumpkin pie and all that, but her pumpkin ice cream is wicked. It’s good,” he says.
His wife agrees.
“I had a friend over here, and I said, ‘Betty, try this. You’re not going to believe it,’ and she said, ‘Am I in heaven?’” Barb Larson says. “Anything she (Tuckman) makes is wonderful.”
Tuckman took Thomas Jefferson’s recipe for sweet potato biscuits and axed the sweet potatoes.
“I used pumpkin to take it out of the South and make it Yankee,” she says.
Many of her recipes originally call for butternut squash or sweet potatoes, but Tuckman makes them with pumpkins.
A cup of pumpkin has as much potassium as a banana and far more fiber. Pumpkins also are rich in iron, calcium, beta carotene and other vitamins. In her carrot muffin recipe, Tuckman makes them moister and less fattening by substituting pumpkin for some of the cooking oil.
Bacon became a trendy ingredient a few years ago, and Tuckman feels that pumpkins can do the same, proving that orange is the new crispy brown.
A bill in Springfield aims to make pumpkin our official state pie, since 90 percent of the nation’s pumpkins are grown and canned in Illinois.
“With its connections to rural life, family and hard work, pumpkin pie symbolizes the values that are close to the heart of all Illinoisans,” Gov. Pat Quinn said in proclaiming Sept. 13 as Pumpkin Pie Day in Illinois.
Pumpkins aren’t limited to pies or autumn, Tuckman says. In addition to her pumpkin ice cream, which resembles a frozen pie, nothing tastes better on a hot July afternoon than her pumpkin-apricot smoothie, she says.
Her “Savory, Fresh Pumpkin Pancakes” have become a favorite with her husband’s side of the family, who grew up eating traditional potato pancakes. She took her brother-in-law Bob’s frittata and said, “I bet I could make that with pumpkins.”
Her most unusual pumpkin recipe might be her pumpkin-stuffed pasta shells, which boast pumpkin instead of ricotta cheese.
“I was never even a fan of pumpkin pie,” says her husband, Jeff, a longtime film critic and manager at a suburban car dealership. “The beauty of her book is that, while she was making all the recipes in our kitchen, I had to try everything she was making, and it turned me around.”
Her pumpkin dishes are so popular, there often aren’t leftovers to take home. So Tuckman does have a secret guilty pleasure to make sure her love of pumpkins is never unrequited.
“I buy Aldi pumpkin pies,” she says of the small dessert sold by the discount grocery. “It’s just right for me to hide in the pantry and pull out for myself if I need a little pumpkin.”