Fall isn’t fall until you have eaten your first piece of pumpkin pie. Pumpkins are enjoyed by many people, never knowing how they originally got their start in traditional America.
The word pumpkin originated from the Greek work Pepon, which means large melon. The word gradually morphed by the French, English and then Americans into the word “pumpkin”. Pumpkins and squash are believed to have originated in the ancient America’s. These early pumpkins were not the traditional round, orange, upright Jack-O-Lantern fruit we think of today when you hear the word pumpkin. They were a crooked neck variety which stored well. Archeologists have determined that variations of squash and pumpkins were cultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans. This took place long before the emergence of maize (corn). After maize was introduced, ancient farmers learned to grow squash with maize and beans using the “Three Sisters” tradition.
Did you know that pumpkins are fruit not vegetables? A fruit is defined as a part of the plant that produce seeds. Pumpkins are part of the fruit family including watermelons, gourds, and squash. They are a winter squash that, despite its name, is a warm weather crop. Pumpkins come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. Pumpkins readily pollinate amongst themselves and with squash, so there are many different varieties. Seeds of pumpkins are often saved by farmers.
Early Native Americans
Early Native Americans roasted pumpkin strips over campfires and used them as a food source, long before the arrival of European explorers. Pumpkins helped the Native Americans make it through long cold winters. They used the sweet flesh in numerous ways: roasted, blackened, parched, boiled and dried. They ate pumpkin seeds and also used them as a medicine. The blossoms were added to stews. Dried pumpkin could be stored and ground into flour.
Indians introduced pumpkins and squash to the Pilgrims. Pumpkins were an important food source for the pilgrims, as they stored well, which meant they would have a nutritious food source during the winter months. It is documented that pumpkins were served at the second Thanksgiving celebration,
When mentally picturing an early Thanksgiving, we usually think of a pilgrim woman in a bleached starched white apron holding a pumpkin pie with a perfectly fluted crust. The truth in fact, is quite the opposite. The Pilgrims cut the top off of the pumpkin, scooped the seeds out, and filled the cavity with cream, honey, eggs, and spices. They placed the top back on and carefully buried in the hot ashes of a cooking fire. When finished cooking, they lifted this blackened item with no pastry shell whatsoever! They scooped the contents out along with the cooked flesh of the shell like a custard. Yumm!
The pilgrims were also known to make pumpkin beer. They fermented a combination of persimmons, hops, maple sugar and pumpkin this early colonial brew. In early colonies, pumpkin shells were used as a template for hair cuts to ensure a round and uniformed finished cut. As a result of this practice, New Englanders were sometimes nicknamed “pumpkinheads”.
In modern America, a traditional Jack-O-Lantern refers to a variety of pumpkin grown for its suitability for carving. They are fairly large in size, upright strong walls, and most importantly a large hollow cavity.
In the late 1800’s there was a movement to turn Halloween into a celebration emphasizing community and neighborhood activities and parties. This is the Halloween we know and celebrate today. Today, Jack-O-Lanterns are a symbol of harvest celebrations.
Chris Vann-Extension Agent- Agriculture/4-H