The pumpkin is a fall fruit with a rich heritage and flexible flavor that has been used for centuries.
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 plants 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 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.
“If flesh meat be wanting
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 coal held inside a turnip. Irishmen and Scots originally carved turnips and, later potatoes, into scary faces, illuminated from within by 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 saltwater, 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 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. The 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.
Pumpkin Recipes and Growing Tips
Pumpkins (Cucurbita spp.) grow in all climates across the United States. In fact, they’re found on every continent except Antarctica. They’ve long been prized for their nutrition, adaptability, and staying power. Their sturdy outer skin allows them to be stored in a cool place for months. Native to North America, pumpkins have been cultivated for about 9,000 years and have been a mainstay of indigenous peoples’ diets. Pumpkin offers protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamin C, potassium, and large amounts of vitamin A and beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A). It’s high in fiber and low in calories. For sustenance, pumpkin is hard to beat.
Because pumpkin has been around for so long, and because it’s found in cuisines across the globe, it unsurprisingly shows up in appetizers, soups, bread, desserts, salads, and savory dishes of all kinds. It offers much more than the annual slice of pie at Thanksgiving. The mild, slightly sweet flavor complements numerous ingredients. I’ve experimented with adding pumpkin to my old favorite recipes, thinking up new combinations, and adapting ideas from other cultures. In some dishes, the pumpkin flavor might be too subtle to detect when used with strong, savory ingredients, but it always adds lovely color, valuable nutrition, and smooth texture.
Pumpkin Cultivars for Culinary Use
Pie pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) are small with thick flesh and few strings. They’re good for shorter seasons because fruits continue to ripen as they cure. Pie pumpkins are the best cooking pumpkins.
- ‘Baby Pam’ (99 days; 4 lbs.)
- ‘New England Pie’ (100 to 105 days; 4 to 6 lbs.)
- ‘Winter Luxury’ (102 days; 5 to 7 lbs.)
Moschata pumpkins (C. moschata) are flattened, ribbed pumpkins with smooth skin and are resistant to squash vine borers. The delicious orange flesh resembles that of closely related butternut squash.
- ‘Dickinson’ (115 days; 20 to 40 lbs.)
- ‘Fairytale’ (110 days; 15 lbs.)
- ‘Long Island Cheese’ (105 days; 6 to 10 lbs.)
Oilseed pumpkins (C. pepo var. styriaca) are grown for their nutritious, hulless seeds, which can be eaten like nuts or pressed to extract their healthful oil.
- ‘Kakai’ (100 days; 5 to 8 lbs.)
- ‘Lady Godiva’ (100 days; 4 to 6 lbs.)
- ‘Williams’ (110 days; 12 to 15 lbs.)
When and How to Plant Pumpkins
Sow pumpkin seeds directly into prepared beds or hills in late spring, after your last frost. Or, try what many gardeners in cool climates do, and set out 3-week-old seedlings in late spring. In Zone 6 and warmer, you can delay planting pumpkins until early summer to use space vacated by spring crops, and use container-grown seedlings to get summer-planted pumpkins growing on time. Stop planting pumpkins 14 weeks before your first fall frost.
Choose a sunny site with fertile, well-drained soil and a pH level between 5.8 and 6.8. Cucurbita moschata pumpkins need little pest protection, so many gardeners grow them in an old compost pile that includes composted manure. Other types of pumpkins benefit from the pest protection of floating row covers for at least six weeks after planting, in which case it’s most practical to start them in a row, spacing plants 3 feet apart (large-fruited pumpkin cultivars may need more room). As you prepare planting holes, mix in a 2-inch layer of mature compost and a light application of a balanced organic fertilizer. Water well. Plant two seeds (or one seedling) in each prepared hole. Install protective row covers over your pumpkins immediately after you plant them. Expect pumpkin vines to run at least 8 feet.
Pest and Disease Prevention Tips
Several insect pests, including squash bugs, squash vine borers, and cucumber beetles, may challenge pumpkins.
To prevent early-season problems, cover plants with row covers held aloft with stakes, hoops, or fencing-wire cages until the plants begin to bloom. Begin handpicking squash bugs as soon as you remove the covers.
Pumpkins’ ripening period is also powdery mildew season. To combat powdery mildew, locate pumpkins as far away as possible from summer squash, and avoid crowding the plants. A spray made from 1 part milk and 6 parts water can suppress powdery mildew if applied every two weeks starting when the fruits begin to swell. Stylet oil (a highly refined white mineral oil) can also help prevent powdery mildew when consistently applied.
Roasted Pumpkin Parmesan Polenta Recipe
This pumpkin-infused polenta is the definition of healthy, hearty comfort food.
Polenta, a staple of Italian cooks, is similar to cornmeal mush in New England as well as the Zulu dish isijingi, which is corn porridge with pumpkin and maybe a little peanut butter. Serve this version with grilled sausages and a crisp salad or with chicken, pork chops, or steak beside some steamed vegetables.
- 1 pound fresh pumpkin, seeds, and fibers removed, cut into big chunks
- 1 tbsp olive oil, plus more for brushing the pumpkin
- 1 tsp crumbled dried sage
- 2 tbsp minced shallots
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 1 cup dry polenta
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Brush each pumpkin chunk with oil and place in a roasting pan. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the pumpkin can be easily pierced with a fork.
When cool enough to handle, remove the skin and roughly mash enough to measure 2 cups, scraping up the brown parts. Store the rest in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Return the mashed pumpkin to the roasting pan and add the sage and shallots.
Drizzle with the 1 tablespoon oil and roast for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the shallots soften.
Heat the chicken broth in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until it boils.
Reduce the heat to low, and gradually add the polenta in a thin stream, stirring constantly.
Add the salt and continue to cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens about 20 minutes.
Stir in the pumpkin mixture, and then stir in the butter and Parmesan.
Cook and continue stirring for a few minutes, until just combined.
Pickled Pumpkin Recipe
Makes 1 liter/1 3/4 pint jar
Pickling pumpkin with intent is a great way to consider what it is that you aim to preserve as you embark on the making process. Sure, as an outcome you’ll have pumpkin for salads, snacks, and sandwiches throughout the winter. But the making process is even more important for honoring time, place, heritage and your part in the cycle of life.
- 225 g/8 oz sugar
- 240 ml/8 1/2 fl oz white wine vinegar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 8 whole cloves
- 3 tablespoons mustard seeds
- 750 g/1 lb 10 oz peeled and diced pumpkin
- Put the sugar, vinegar, cinnamon, cloves and mustard seeds in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, add the pumpkin and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, process your bottling jars.
- Spoon the pumpkin into each jar and fill with the pickling liquid, ensuring that you leave a 1 cm to a 1/2-inch gap at the top. Immediately place sterilized lids on each filled jar and seal. When all the jars are sealed, process them to keep them shelf-stable for up to six months.
“It would be becoming of us to speak modestly of our place in the universe. Let me offer a metaphor. Earth relates to the Universe as the second segment of the left antenna of an aphid sitting on a flower petal in the garden for a few hours this afternoon.” —E. O. Wilson
Native American agrarians cultivated personal humility as they nurtured regenerative food systems. The “Three Sisters” (corn, beans, and pumpkins) represented a microcosm of the food web they served. Corn was planted to provide a trellis upon which soil-feeding (nitrogen-fixing) beans would weave their way to the sky while helping to support the corn stalks during storms. Pumpkins would grow in the shade of the corn and, as they plumped, would help to retain moisture in the soil during scorching summers. It ́s a tale I consider when I pickle pumpkin for seasonal gifts to reinforce my intent to develop a nature-relatedness practice to become the change from head to hands to habit.