The Truth About “Canned Pumpkin”

This Thanksgiving essential is hiding a big secret — canned pumpkin is not pumpkin at all, it’s squash.

| Fall 2012

When Elijah Dickinson moved from Kentucky to Illinois in 1835, he didn’t know he was carrying with him the seeds of a billion-dollar pumpkin, one of the most valuable heirloom vegetable crops in history. Yet the pumpkin which finds its way into most pumpkin pies today is not really a pumpkin.

Dickinson was born in 1795 in Spotsylvania, Virginia, and at the age of 19 joined the cavalry in the fight against the British in the War of 1812. Shortly after the war he moved to Christian County, Kentucky, married Miss Mary Anne Burrus, and had six children. He was deeply religious, and with 19 other congregants of the Baptist Church, began a Christian Church for which he became an elder. In his younger years he labored as a carpenter and after marriage he became a farmer. The call of the rich lands of the Midwest beckoned, and in the fall of 1835 he headed north to Illinois, near present-day Eureka.

Being a farmer, amongst his prize possessions were surely his seeds, and the Dickinson family story is that the seeds of the Dickinson Pumpkin traveled with him. Other than this morsel of information, little is known about this squash’s origination or development. Farmer talk amongst Dickinson growers in Illinois is that this squash was derived from the Kentucky Field Pumpkin, otherwise known as Large Cheese, Kentucky Mammoth and Indiana Cheese. Maule’s 1902 catalog describes Kentucky Field as the same as large cheese, “a large round flattened pumpkin, with broad ribs, often obtains a diameter of two feet.” These were cultivated extensively in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Similar cheese pumpkins were present in Colonial times, and they were first offered commercially in a catalog by Bernard McMahon in 1807 and later by Thorburn. They were extensively cultivated in the mid-Atlantic States by the time of the American revolution, and returning soldiers spread them to the North.  Cheese pumpkins tend to have stringy flesh and average taste.

Whether we can point to Kentucky Field as the progenitor of Dickinson may never be clearly established, and at some point in the 19th century, Elijah Dickinson or some of his relatives developed the large blocky, Dickinson Field Pumpkin. To add to the confusion, in the later 20th century, the name Dickinson was attached to the flattened Kentucky Field.

Classifying the Dickinson

Dickinson Pumpkin belongs to the squash species known as Cucurbita moschata, characterized most notably by the butternut squash, as well as cheese pumpkins, Canada crookneck, long neck pumpkin, and others. These squashes typically have a fairly uniform, smooth, tan rind when ripe, which is a defining characteristic of most moschata squash, but not all of them. This species is relatively cold intolerant and will not thrive in our northern cool areas much beyond zone 5.

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