Laura Dean Bennett
Like the swallows of Capistrano, right on time, they come back every year.
And, as important as they are to our Halloween celebrations, that’s just where pumpkins are getting started!
From a prominent place on our porches, a favorite ingredient in recipes, a popular addition to Starbucks’ drink menu and an ubiquitous image in advertising – pumpkins are arguably the very essence of everything autumn.
Pumpkins are just so appealing.
And, boy, oh boy, are they good for us!
One cup of mashed pumpkin contains more than 200 percent of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin A and the antioxidant Beta-carotene.
According to the National Institutes of Health, Vitamin A is essential in aiding healthy vision, especially in dim lighting.
That cup of mashed pumpkin contains only 50 calories, but it delivers three grams of fiber.
Pumpkin seeds contain 1.7 grams of fiber per ounce.
Studies show that high-fiber diets can lower our risk of heart disease.
Pumpkin seeds also contain tryptophan, the amino acid responsible for the famous post-Thanksgiving dinner sleepiness.
Tryptophan helps the body make Serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps keep our moods on the upswing.
Many people may use bananas as nature’s potassium energy boost and muscle repair kit, but cooked pumpkin actually contains even more potassium than bananas.
Humans didn’t always understand the particulars of what makes pumpkin good for us, but they must have recognized its importance to their diets.
It is one of mankind’s oldest cultivated crops.
The not-so-distant relatives of our modern day pumpkins originated in Central America more than 7,500 years ago.
The oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds were discovered by in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico, where the Pre-Columbian Native Americans grew pumpkins for food.
These early pumpkins were much different than the large, typically orange variety we know today – they were much smaller and had a more bitter taste.
Over the years, pumpkin varieties have been developed specifically for their sweetness.
Pumpkin was unknown in Europe until 1536, when it was first mentioned in botanical inventories after European explorers returned with pumpkins and pumpkin seeds from the New World.
And the pumpkins grew well in their new surroundings.
Written references to pumpkins in Europe date back centuries.
The origin of our word, pumpkin, was the Greek word for large melon, which is “pepon.”
The French pronounced it, “pompon” and the English changed it to “pumpion.”
Shakespeare referred to a pumpion in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
As fond of pie-making and kettle cookery as the British people had always been, it’s no wonder that pumpion eventually made its way into pastry recipes and stews.
By the time the Pilgrims set sail for America in 1620, it’s likely that many of the colonists were already familiar with pumpions.
After they had survived their first year, there was a three-day harvest celebration held between the colonists and the Wampanoag tribe, which we now call the First Thanksgiving.
It is assumed that pumpkin, of some sort, was probably on the menu.
American colonists eventually changed “pumpion” into “pumpkin,” and the name stuck.
Because of its thick skin and nutritious, solid flesh, pumpkins could safely be stored throughout the winter, making them a life-saving food source when fresh food was scarce.
Native Americans made a flatbread from pumpkin flesh and also flattened strips of pumpkin and slow-roasted them into a sort of jerky.
They used pumpkin seeds for food and medicine and the colonists also came to believe that pumpkins might have medicinal uses.
Pumpkin was also known to be effective against scurvy.
For a brief period of time, pumpkins were also recommended by apothecaries for removing freckles and treating snake bites.
Pumpkins came to play a significant role in the diet of Colonial Americans, and it wasn’t long before American literature began to include references to pumpkins.
An old rhyme that originated in Early America features the pumpkin:
Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well.
And then there was Washington Irving’s headless horseman throwing a pumpkin down the lane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Pumpkins have long been valued for their versatility.
They were used in stews, soups, breads, pies, tarts and puddings.
Thyme, rosemary, parsley and sweet marjoram were originally the favorite spices used to flavor pumpkin in savory recipes.
The flesh could be boiled, roasted, fried or mashed and the seeds have long been dried and salted as a nutritious snack food.
We think of pumpkins as a vegetable, but they are technically a fruit.
Like other forms of squash, pumpkins are easy to grow.
Pumpkins are members of the cucurbits family, which includes several vining, climbing or trailing plants like squash, cucumber, gourd, watermelon and cantaloupe.
Although they are now being grown in high tunnels and are field grown for different seasons around the country, 80 percent of the American pumpkin crop is taken to market in October.
Pumpkins range in size from less than a pound to more than 1,000 pounds, and there are now at least 42 varieties of pumpkins being cultivated in the United States and around the world.
Pumpkins are an extremely versatile and useful plant.
Nothing of the pumpkin need go to waste.
Besides their flesh, the skin, leaves, seeds and flowers are also edible.
In China the leaves are added to soups and in Thailand small pumpkins are steamed with custard inside and served for dessert.
The Italians combine pureed pumpkin with cheese to make a savory stuffing for ravioli and many homemade pasta makers have incorporated pumpkin into their pasta recipes.
Even a pumpkin’s blossoms are delicious.
They can be eaten raw in salads, dipped in a batter and deep fried, or stuffed with cheese and roasted.
When we think of eating pumpkin these days, many of us would first conjure images of pumpkin pie.
But pumpkin pie wasn’t always as we now know it.
In early colonial times, pumpkins were often used as an ingredient for the crust of pies, rather than the filling.
Even before they were making pumpkin into pie crust, Early Americans were slicing off pumpkin tops, removing the seeds, filling the inside of the pumpkin with milk, spices and honey and baking them in hot ashes.
This is the original form of our American pumpkin pie.
Eventually, Colonial cooks got around to baking what we would recognize these days as pumpkin pies, although they favored sliced apples instead of a pastry crust on top of the pie.
In 1796, the first American cookbook was published, American Cookery, by an American Orphan by Amelia Simmons.
In this book Simmons recorded recipes for pumpkin puddings baked in a crust that are quite similar to our present day pumpkin pies.
Pumpkins arrive just at the right time – as the days grow colder and fresh fruits and vegetables are harder to come by.
So let’s get on with fall, take a look around the corner at winter and bring on the pumpkin!