This week you might be eating some pumpkin. A reminder from City Fruit: pumpkin is botanically a fruit! Let a lively discussion ensue at the dining table as to what does and doesn’t qualify as a fruit. Refer to our last blog post for the facts.
Pumpkin is also native to North America, making it a cultural celebration in pie crust form. Indigenous peoples of the Americas companion planted squash with beans and corn (maize), in a method known as Three Sisters (the almanac does not recommend pumpkins for the true benefits of companion planting, but rather Hubbard squash). Historically, it would seem these fruits were mostly used in savory preparations by the native population. Squash was differentiated like it is now, between summer and winter varieties, thin (edible) skin and those needing to be peeled (with the exception of delicata: eat that skin!). Concerning specific varieties, however, squash was just… squash. The University of Washington Press published a book illuminating pumpkin history in America, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon by Cindy Ott.
The pumpkin is botanically indistinguishable from summer and winter squashes and from gourds. They all belong to the Cucurbita pepo species, which means they can cross-breed, producing a mix of forms. That happens at the time of pollination…When someone discriminates one type from another, therefore, the definition is based on common custom rather than natural fact.
Pumpkins and other winter varieties store well, which would have been a valuable asset before controlled temperature storage (refrigeration/freezing). Harvesting in the late fall and proper preservation results in winter food stores to last until spring: a sustaining force, preserving life. Squash bordered on reverential for its role in Indigenous survival.
If pumpkins were such a quintessential component of the Indigenous diet, how did they end up being porch ornaments come autumn? The history is interesting, yet confusing. Published in 1848, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving supplies a ghoulish pumpkin connection, potentially encouraged by Irish folklore depicting a trickster jack-o’-lantern forever wandering. Ott refers to this urban legend personification as “the unknown, bewildering forces that seemingly occupied wild places,” a “will-o-wisp” (the author did not originate this term; it’s permeated legends/lore/folktales through the ages).
While it would be nifty to recycle your Jack-O-Lantern for the pumpkin in your pie, according to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, don’t: “they taste nasty.” Canned is convenient and perfectly adequate. Or cooking down your choice of hardy winter squash, if the store ran out of cans.
Ott, Cindy; Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. University of Washington Press, 2012.