RER 10.16.12

Yup, it is deffo fall. Not only are the spiced pumpkin lattes and pumpkin muffins indicators, but the scattered pumpkin Halloween decorations taking over the streets are also a sign. The grocery stores have been ambushed with these fall gourds of all different sizes and colors. There are pumpkin seeds toasted and untoasted, pumpkin pies and pumpkin flavored seasonal items, creeping throughout the aisles. Yup, it’s fall and the pumpkins have invaded.

Pumpkins, are giant (well sometimes giant) fruits, coming from the species cucurbits, and have their origins in Central America and Mexico.[1] As a member of this cucurbit family, pumpkins are gourds. Some of their plant relatives are cantaloupe, cucumbers, honeydew melons, watermelons and zucchini.[2] 

The name of this large squash fruit, comes from the Greek word “pepon,” meaning large melon. This Greek word was then transformed and nasalized by the French, creating the word “pompon,”[3] after their discovery in the New World in 1584 by the French explorer John Cartier. This name was then translated into the English language as “pompions” and since then has evolved into what we have come to say, “pumpkin.”[4]

This giant fruit/gourd, indigenous to the western hemisphere, has been growing in North America for more than five thousand years now. But the cultivation of this orange fall fruit has spread to six continents.[5]  The only continent that cannot support pumpkin life would be Antarctica, but even the very cold Alaska can grow pumpkins.[6]

Out of all the pumpkin production in the United States, Illinois harvests the most fruit, nearly 12,300 acres.[7] And according to University of Illinois Extension, between 90 and 95% of processed pumpkins in the USA are grown in Illinois. That is HUGE! (speaking of huge, the largest pumpkin ever, noted, was brought to a fair in Massachusetts in September of this year, weighing in at about 2000 pounds –over a ton![8]). Other than Illinois, the top pumpkin producing states are California, Ohio and Pennsylvania.[9]

Pumpkin is one of those warm- season vegetables, so it is a tender and petulant plant. They are really temperamental, because the seeds do not germinate well in cold soil and they are damaged by frost, but if the pumpkins are planted too early, there is no way the large fruit would make it all the way to Halloween (which is its life goal, duh).[10]  The petulant pumpkin seeds should in fact be planted between the last week of May and mid June. According to History.com, the pumpkin plant takes between 90 and 120 days to grow, and should be picked when they are a bright orange color, which in October (which is what the pumpkin growers hope for),[11] and about 80% of all pumpkin supply in the United States is available during this month.

Pumpkins like most every fruit, comes in a large array of varieties; in taste, look, color and size. The fruits can range from intense orange red all the way to yellow, and back again. The different shapes and colors are the tell tale way of discerning the specific variety of pumpkin you are looking at, like the Cinderella pumpkin (the basis of the carriage for a famous Disney princess…guess who), or the Hybrid Autumn Gold, or even the Standard Orange.[12]

These gourds are mostly made up of water, about 90%,[13] which make them a very water loving plant, similar to their relatives (ahem… watermelon). Pumpkins are also pretty nutritious, though, unlike the plantain or apples even, pumpkins are not currently considered a food staple. This might have to do with their very limited growth season. About one cup of cooked pumpkin flesh is about 49 calories (without salt), 2 grams of protein, about 3 grams of fiber, and 12 grams of carbohydrates.[14] This amount of pumpkin has the same number of grams of fiber of a small apple. Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of copper, magnesium, protein and zinc.[15]

RER 10.16.12

What oh what can we do with pumpkins?
Is that a trick question? Because there are like a zillion uses for pumpkins, inside and out…

As another one of those fall staples, pumpkin finds itself in million different recipes and uses that all (well almost all) scream out autumn. Pumpkins feed people as well as some livestock on farms.[16]

The seeds can be scraped and separated from the pulp, and roasted (and salted) for an excellent snack. The seeds once a little roasty in the oven are very meaty, and earthy at the same time. They are very large and make excellent salad toppers, or snacks to crunch on. I can remember in childhood, after slaving away at carving a pumpkin either at school or at home, we would toast the seeds, salt them and eat them while they were still warm. Fond fall memories.

The inner meat of the pumpkin is an ingredient in a large variety of food stuffs. A main and memorable thing would be pumpkin pie. Orange, wet, pulpy meat is the foundation to the filling of this fall time favorite, a star of the Thanksgiving dinner, or a great autumn treat. Along with the inside of the pumpkins are the soothing spices that smell of fall and a sense of cozy tostiness. Though, in the early colonial era, pumpkins were still a main component of pie, only they were used as an ingredient in the crust![17] The origins of pumpkin pie also probably came from the colonial times, when the colonists would slice off the top of the fruit, remove the many seeds, and fill the interior with honey, milk and various spices. This pumpkin vessel would be baked on hot ashes, and consumed as a sweet dish.[18]

The colonists were not the only ones back in the day that revered the massive vine fruit, but the Native Americans had several uses for the pumpkin, both nutritional and medicinal. Though it was the Native Americans that first introduced the multipurpose pumpkin to the pilgrims (I know I keep envisioning one of the first Thanksgivings, Native Americans and colonists alike, swarming around a cornucopia of pumpkins, turkey and corn…active imagination, I know).[19]

Through the Native American farmers’ use of sustainable agriculture, the pumpkin squash was cultivated and used as a food source, as well as other items throughout their culture. They roasted pumpkin strips over fire sources as food, but they also flattened similar pieces, dried them and made them into mats. [20] The Native Americans also used the flesh of the pumpkin in a large variety of ways, from boiled to baked, to dried or roasted. Dried pumpkin would be ground into a kind of flour, which also had many uses. They also used the hollowed out gourd as bowls once dried, and the seeds had medicinal value to the Native Americans.[21]

RER 10.16.12
 Oh dear, but I digress (kinda).

The popularity of pumpkin pie and what seems like the relative difficulty of acquiring the fleshy meat of the fruit (though I have not tried it in ages, this year might be the year for me), has generated canned pumpkin filling, as well as canned pumpkin.

These two advents are used also in a whole host of things. I remember when I was really young (like second grade) I had a cooking class as an afterschool activity and we made pumpkin pudding. I was so obsessed and proud of how well I made it, that my parents indulged me and let me make it as dessert for a few Thanksgivings running. It was super easy, but also super delicious, and relied on canned pumpkin. Check out this really easy recipe or this mildly more difficult one. Guess which I made…

Another fall time favorite of my family involving a super large can of pumpkin, would be the warm pumpkin soup. Now, I will be honest, I am not a soup lady, mostly because I do not find them too filling and I just do not see the comfort that people generally get out of them. But this pumpkin soup grew on me. How could it not?  Finished off with a swirl of cream, and garnished with a dollop of sour cream and chives. Yum. Now that is fall. This soup is heavy, sweet and savory all at the same time, spicy and substantial enough to almost call a meal. This recipe is the closest I could find to the one my mother uses when she whips up this fall dish.
Popular fall flavors often include pumpkin, whether it is that spiced pumpkin latte people are going crazy for (literally... check out refinery29’s article on the matter), or pumpkin doughnuts that are clogging dunkin donuts. Or even the pumpkin muffins, cakes, cheesecakes, pumpkin scones that make an appearances during this time of the year. I must admit, pumpkin is a great fall flavor, and can replace and be an addition to most any baked favorite. Though pumpkins can be sweet, they do have an earthiness to them that creates a savory balance (and maybe less guilt, on my part) to many baked goods.

Pumpkin, in its crazy popularity has recently brought up the question, “Is pumpkin the new bacon?” New York Times Magazine explores this in a piece from earlier this week. Check out the article. This year is apparently the one of the most active for the pumpkin on seasonal menus, in foods, desserts and drinks. The connotations that surround pumpkins, their organic and farm grown characteristics, perhaps have driven their appeal this year. Though what may have pumpkin in the title, might not actually have pumpkin in it, but all the spices and accessories to make pumpkin that delicious familiar taste we are used to.[22]

Not only do we cook with it and eat it…. We carve and decorate with it. The pumpkin has made its way into the popular culture of Halloween, through older traditions brought to America from Europeans. Back in Scotland and Ireland, turnips and other root vegetables served as Jack O’ Lanterns to frighten away evil spirits (check out this website to learn more). Immigrants from England and these countries found that pumpkins were perfect canvases to create the terrifying faces of Jack O’ Lanterns, and abandoned previous food stuffs.[23]

And now there is no escape from the Halloween season, which seems to last from late August (when Ricky’s and Spirit pop ups, pop up) to middle November (when Target, Walgreen’s, CVS and the likes run out of discounted candy and decorations), which inflates the pumpkin to its current fall glory!

Don't forget to check out my sources page for more on pumpkins and spooky Halloween facts (well not really that spooky).

RER 10.16.12

[1] Illinois University Extension “Pumpkin Facts”
[2] History.com “Pumpkin Facts”
[3] Illinois University Extension “Pumpkin History”
[4] History.com “Pumpkin Facts”
[5] History.com “Pumpkin Facts”
[6] www.pumpkin-patch.com “Unusual Pumpkin Facts”
[7] Pumpkinmasters.com “Halloween Facts”
[8] www.pumpkinnook.com
[9] Illinois University Extension “Pumpkin Facts”
[10] Illinois University Extension “Growing Pumpkins”
[11] History.com “Pumpkin Facts”
[12] Illinois University Extension “Varieties”
[13] Illinois University Extension “Pumpkin Facts”
[14] Allaboutpumpkins.com “Pumpkin Facts and Information”
[15] Wikipedia.org “Pumpkin”
[16] kids-learn.org “Cool Facts About Pumpkins”
[17] Illinois University Extension “Pumpkin Facts”
[18] Illinois University Extension “Pumpkin Facts”
[19] Allaboutpumpkins.com “Pumpkin History”
[20] Illinois University Extension “Pumpkin Facts”
[21] Allaboutpumpkins.com “Pumpkin History”
[22] Felix Salmon "Pumpkin Is the New Bacon." NYMag.com.
[23] History.com “History of the Jack O’ Lantern

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