If the tomato is the queen of garden vegetables, the pumpkin may well be the king. In fact, in some parts of China, it is called “Emperor of the garden.” And why not? No plant produces a larger edible fruit, and what other plant can yield tens (or even hundreds) of pounds of healthful, delicious eating from a single seed in only a few months’ time? Pumpkins are known and loved around the world, for their beauty as well as for the gifts they bestow so generously, asking so little in return.
What's In A Name?
A pumpkin is a winter squash, but not all winter squash are pumpkins. Confused? So is everyone else. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pumpkin as the large fruit of Cucurbita pepo, “egg-shaped or nearly globular, with flattened ends ... used in cookery, esp. for pies, and as a food for cattle ... ” On the Internet the definition is even more prosaic — a pumpkin is something that is used for jack-o-lanterns! Yet in Australia “pumpkin” is used to describe a number of non-round, non-pepo, non-jack-o-lantern-yielding squash varieties, and no apparent harm is done. And in the United States, the mainstream’s iconic Libby's canned pumpkin isn't really pumpkin at all, but is said to be Dickinson squash, which is a variety of Cucurbita moschata, is round or nearly so, but is possibly never used for carving jack-o-lanterns. It only goes to show how arbitrary are the lines between pumpkin and squash.
Whichever squash species any putative pumpkin may belong to, we're on firmer ground with the origin of the word itself. The French borrowed the word “pepon” from the Greeks, who used the moniker to denote a large melon. Over time the word morphed into “pompon,” then into “pompion;” Shakespeare corrupted that just a little further, into “pumpion.” Finally, in the American colonies, it became “pumpkin,” and, in a process still apparently going on, some folks today say “punkin.”
The Three Sisters
People of the Indian nations in many regions had for centuries cultivated beans, corns and pumpkins (or squashes) in a planting style collectively known as “Three Sisters” planting. The three crops, by their natures, interact and make life easier for each other, and for the farmer. Beans twine up the corn stalks, restoring nitrogen in the soil. Tall corn plants, rustling melodiously in the breeze, offer a bit of shelter and support to the pumpkin plants. These in turn shade out the soil, reducing weed growth and conserving soil moisture.
Native Americans regarded their world in terms of their mythological or metaphysical belief systems, and for many, the Three Sisters had a religious context. The natives were keenly aware of the symbiotic relationship between these three crops, as they grew them, and of humankind's position as both keeper and beneficiary, and they viewed the relationship as somehow sacred. It cannot be coincidental that the Three Sisters planting offers a superb model for sustainability.
New World Crop
Pumpkins and, to be fair, squashes in general, were in cultivation in the Americas for millennia before Europeans discovered them. The crops may even predate the domestication of corn in the New World. The original inhabitants grew the plant at first for their nutritious seeds, the wild species being often too bitter to use the fruits. But as milder variants emerged, selection took place and eventually the fruits could be eaten as well. Remains of pumpkins have been found in the Southwest's cliff dwellings, and in addition to seeds, various peoples ate the blossoms, the immature fruits as summer squash, and, when mature, the fruits were stewed, roasted, dried and pounded into flour. Swedish botanist Peter Kalm, exploring the wilds of New York and Canada, 1749, wrote:
“The Indians, in order to preserve the pumpkins for a very long time, cut them in long slices which they fasten or twist together and dry either in the sun or by the fire in a room. When they are thus dried, they will keep for years, and when boiled they taste very well. The Indians prepare them thus at home and on their journeys.”
The natives also used the dried shells for containers and even cut strips of the flesh and wove mats from them!
The French adventurer, Jacques Cartier, exploring what is now Canada, reported in 1584 that the indigenous people there were growing what he called “gros melons.” The English translated and published his account. Curiously, the translation used the word “pompion.”
Decades later, Native Americans instructed the Pilgrims how to use the vegetable. The colonists quickly added new ways, drawing upon their own culture and experience. One very early pudding was prepared by scooping out the seeds and pulp, filling the cavity with milk, beaten eggs and honey or molasses and occasionally spices, and baking in the coals of a fire until done — literally a pumpkin pie!
It is said that the colonists were more receptive to incorporating pumpkin into their diet in the second year, after hunger had led to many deaths in that first brutal New World winter. They learned to stew pumpkin with ground corn to create a bread, to bake or boil it and eat plain, and, just maybe, to make true pumpkin pie, reputed to have been present at the archetypal first Thanksgiving. But scholars have disputed this.
Had it not been for pumpkins, the colonists might not have survived those first lean years, but were they grateful? Perhaps not entirely. Pumpkin proved to be a bit bland even for restrained Puritan tastes, and was said to “provoke urine and wind.” In “New England's Annoyances,” the oldest known American topical poem, the author addresses by turns humorously, satirically, and seriously, the conditions found at Plymouth Plantation in the earliest colonial days. The work is imputed to Edward Johnson, and is believed to have been written in 1643.
to fill up our dish,
We have carrets and pumkins
and turnips and fish;
...Instead of pottage and puddings
and custards and pies,
Our pumkins and parsnips
are common supplies;
We have pumkin at morning
and pumkin at noon,
if it was not for pumkin
we should be undoon.
In Home Life in Colonial Days, 1898, Alice Morse Earle wrote: “The pumpkin has sturdily kept its place on the New England farm ... easy of growth, easy of cooking, and easy to keep in a dried form.˝
Yet the colonists did not welcome the pumpkin with eagerness, even in times of great want. They were justly rebuked for their indifference and dislike by [Edward] Johnson in his Wonder-working providence, [published in 1654] who called the pumpkin “a fruit which the Lord fed his people with till corn and cattle increased,” adding that the people of New England in his own time had begun eating “apples, pears, and quince tarts instead of their former Pumpkin Pies.”
John Josselyn wrote in his New England Rarities, 1672, about an “Ancient New England standing Dish,” which term meant that the dish was constantly available in a well-run kitchen:
“But the House wives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew'd enough, it will look lik bak'd Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fishor Flesh...”
Pumpkin shells were even used as a template for haircuts to ensure a round and uniform finished cut. As a result of this practice, New Englanders were sometimes nicknamed “pumpkin-heads.”
But it wasn't only in the northern colonies that the dependable pumpkins were a key crop. Captain John Smith wrote in A Map of Virginia, 1612: “In May also amongst their corne they plant Pumpeons, and a fruit like unto a muske millen, but lesse and worse, which they call Maycocks. These increase exceedingly, and ripen in the beginning of July, and continue until September.”
In the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson wrote of two types of pumpkin, a “white” and a “black” kind. Nearly a century later, Alice Earle wrote: “In Virginia pumpkins were equally plentiful and useful... They grew in such abundance that a hundred were often observed to spring from one seed. The Virginia Indians boiled beans, peas, corn and pumpkins together, and the colonists liked the dish.”
A hundred fruits per plant may have been hyperbole in Earle's original source, or perhaps her eyewitness was deceived by the habit of growing several plants closely together, but it's comforting to know that the Virginia colonists at least liked what proved to be such a necessary food as they were building their colonies!
By fermenting a combination of the native persimmons, hops, maple sugar and pumpkins, the colonists even made a sort of beer. This must have improved their outlook on many an evening!
Other Uses For Pumpkins
Such an estimable food source was quickly traded worldwide in the Age of Sail. Local cultures were quick to embrace the pumpkin and today, it can be found in cuisines from Thailand, India, and the rest of Asia, all over Africa and of course throughout Europe. In addition to the varied uses of the fruits, the leaves are eaten in China and in Kenya where they are called seveve, and no doubt in lots of other places as well. Everywhere the flowers are battered and fried, and of course the fruits are used in soups and curries, in addition to all the well-known Western uses of this most versatile crop.
Origin Of The Jack-O-Lantern
Jack-o-lanterns originated around a lengthy Celtic legend about Stingy Jack and a series of supernatural exploits that culminated in his endless wandering in darkness, his way lit only by a coal held inside a turnip. Irishmen and Scots originally carved turnips and, later potatoes, into scary faces, illuminated from within by a coal or candle to frighten evil spirits. Much later, when their descendants emigrated to America, they found pumpkins far superior to turnips for the task, and the “modern” jack-o-lantern was born.
Worldwide the seeds have been soaked in salt water, then roasted and eaten as a snack. The practice is particularly widespread in Latin America, where they're known as “pepitas.” However, the outer seed coats can be bothersome, to eat or to peel, and that has led to the development of “hulless” varieties, in which the tough outer seed coat does not develop. Instead, the seeds are merely enclosed in a thin transparent skin, which presents no obstacle to the high protein kernels within.
The quest for bragging rights is certainly a reason to grow pumpkins. In 2012, the world record was held by Ron Wallace, of Greenfield, Rhode Island. Ron's pumpkin, in a contest in Massachusetts, weighed in at just over a ton — 2009 pounds! Such record-breaking fruits are grown with very special care, often from closely held proprietary crosses made by the growers. But open-pollinated ‘Dill's Atlantic Giant’ has been around for decades and is widely available, including from the breeder himself, and has weighed in at around 1000 pounds, which should be more than enough pumpkin for the average kitchen!
Pumpkin Nutrition Facts
The bright-orange color of pumpkin is a dead giveaway that pumpkin is loaded with an important antioxidant, beta carotene. Beta carotene is one of the plant carotenoids converted to vitamin A in the body.
1 cup cooked, boiled, drained, without salt:
Protein: 2 g
Carbohydrate: 12 g
Dietary Fiber: 3 g
Calcium: 37 mg
Iron: 1.4 mg
Magnesium: 22 mg
Potassium: 564 mg
Zinc: 1 mg
Selenium: .50 mg
Vitamin C: 12 mg
Niacin: 1 mg
Folate: 21 mcg
Vitamin A: 2650 IU
Vitamin E: 3 mg
(Adapted from University of Illinois extension publications)
Pumpkin seed oil deserves special mention. The oil wasn't unknown to Native American farmers. In the southwest, the Hopi people in their inhospitable climate for centuries would crush the seeds and heat them on their smooth stone griddles. Then they would pour a thin batter of specially prepared corn, often in colors of pink or blue, to make a paper-thin crepe or pancake. This dish is known as “piki bread,” and today is recognized worldwide.
The oil is typically a rich, deep-green color with a robust flavor. A traditional center of pumpkin seed production for oil was northeastern Slovenia and southern Austria. Oil content of pumpkin seeds can approach 50 percent, depending on the variety. The dark-green oil is rich in vitamin E and free fatty acids.
• ‘Jaune Gros de Paris’ — 110 days (C. maxima). An ancient French heirloom, Large Yellow of Paris gets very large indeed — 100 pounds is not an unusual size for it. The fruits are very smooth with slight ribbing in the pink to pale orange skin. This cultivar is the ancestor of many of today's giant strains. “Maxima” means large, and the very largest pumpkins all belong to this species. Some other large C. maxima cultivars are: ‘Atlantic Giant,’ ‘Big Max, ’and ‘Burgess Giant.’
• ‘Connecticut Field Pumpkin’ — 100 days (Cucurbita pepo). Quite possibly this is the original pumpkin that the New England settlers were gifted by the natives. Deep orange outside and not so much ribbed as grooved, the interior consists of pale yellow flesh, somewhat coarse and stringy to modern tastes, but suitable for canning, which means it's equally suitable for Thanksgiving pies!
The fruits are very smooth, round to ever-so-slightly oblong, and can weigh in at about 20 to 25 pounds. In modern times this classic is mainly used for jack-o-lanterns, which seems a waste when the variety is so massively productive, and it has in fact been known as Jack-o-Lantern. Some other names it has carried, as seedsmen arranged and rearranged their marketing strategies, are Big Tom, Yankee, Connecticut Cornfield, Cow Pumpkin, and many more.
Henry David Thoreau once remarked upon the timely, seasonal beauty of the large fields of this type that covered Connecticut in the early 19th century.
• ‘Long Island Cheese’ — 105 days (Cucurbita moschata).
Fearing Burr wrote that this revered heirloom was in widespread production throughout the mid-Atlantic states prior to the Revolution. The buff-colored fruits are round and flat. They were long favored in the markets of Long Island. It was introduced by Bernard McMahon of Philadelphia in 1807, which certainly makes it one of the older American heirlooms still extant. And they really do look like an old-style wheel of cheese!
Other superior C. moschata pumpkins include ‘Seminole,’ ‘Greek Sweet Red,’ ‘Musquee de Provence,’ ‘Dickinson,’ ‘Buff Pie.’ And of course, Butternut. “Moschata” means fragrant; when opened pumpkins of this species are often very fragrant, reminiscent perhaps of the fragrance of a summer watermelon.
The flesh of these types can be somewhat coarse textured or stringy, but this often mellows in cooking, and is totally absent in purees. Many feel that the richness of flavor and the sweetness of these pumpkins more than make it worth-while. The superb storage quality of this species comes as a tremendous bonus: many varieties can be stored for a year or more.
• ‘Jarrahdale’ — 95-100 days (C. Maxima).
Fruits are 10 to 12 pounds with the exterior being a blue-gray color and sumptuously ribbed. The drum-shaped fruits contain brilliant orange flesh. Flesh is dense and fine-textured, mildly sweet but with a signature complexity that many gardeners find alluring.
• ‘Rouge Vif D'Etampes’ — 110 days (C. maxima).
Also called the Cinderella Pumpkin, the delicately shaped fruit truly epitomizes the grace you'd expect from a pumpkin that changed into her beautiful coach. Oblate, and sometimes concave at the stem, the blossom ends of the fruit, and deep red-orange, ribbed skin, all make an almost unbelievably beautiful picture. The fine-grained flesh is sweet and golden-yellow. This variety has been grown in France for centuries.
RANDEL A. AGRELLA lives, works and gardens in central Connecticut, where he also manages historic Comstock, Ferre and Co. An heirloom seed saver since 1982, he offers heirloom plants in season on his website, www.abundantacres.net. His articles have appeared in Heirloom Gardener since 2005.