Fall is officially upon us, and perhaps there are no two food and season connections then pumpkins and fall. Think about it, when it comes to seasons, pumpkins and fall are forever attached. Jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin pie. Pumpkin bread and pumpkin candles. But, I’m gonna put this out there right now: I am not a pumpkin spice latte girl. I truly could care less when to start getting in line for the seasonal brew but I do love many other pumpkin products. Pumpkin pie is my absolute favorite pie ever in the whole wide world. I could eat it every day. I also like pumpkin bread and some pumpkin scented candles.
But what’s so special about pumpkins? Well for starters, they’re a fruit not a vegetable. What?! Yep, which explains why pumpkin pie is so delicious: it’s a fruit pie!
Stay with me here as I put my scientist hat on and explain that since a pumpkin contains seeds and develops from the flower-producing part of a plant, botanists consider it a fruit and the plumper cousin of say apples and strawberries. Vegetables on the other hand, like carrots and potatoes, are the edible parts of plants such as leaves, stems, bulbs, and roots. The poor little pumpkin is not alone in the world of confusing not so much apples and oranges but fruits and veggies. They are joined by tomatoes, avocados, and cucumbers, all of which are fruits, not vegetables. And get this, since a pumpkin is actually a cultivar of a squash plant, squash is also a fruit! That’s right, zucchini, acorn, and butternut squashes are all fruits and so are gourds!
The problem could be that these surprising fruits aren’t sweet, which we tend to think fruits to be. It also doesn’t help that cooks and grocers often classify these more savory fruits as vegetables. Whatever you consider them, pumpkins are both good and good for you. They can be roasted, sautéed, pureed, or mashed. They can be made into soups, casseroles, breads, muffins, and yes, those glorious pies!
They also have quite a history.
The word “pumpkin” comes from the Greek word for “large melon,” pepon. The French Frenchified it with “pompon” and the British changed it to “pumpion.” American colonists are credited with Americanizing it into “pumpkin.”
Pumpkins are one of the oldest domesticated plants around, originating as early as 5000 BC by some calculations. The big orange fruits are widely grown for commercial use with 2017 world production hitting around 25 million tons. China and India account for nearly half of that production while stateside, Illinois accounts for nearly 95 percent of the U.S. crop. Nestle produces 85 percent of processed U.S. pumpkin under its Libby’s brand at its plant in Morton, Illinois. That’s a lot of pumpkin!
But how did pumpkins become so connected to Halloween and Thanksgiving? Let’s look at Halloween first.
Carved into Jack-o-Lanterns every October and decorated with all types of ghoulish and fall-like decorations, pumpkins first became associated with Halloween in Ireland. In fact, the practice of doing so has to do with an Irish myth about a man named “Stingy Jack.” It wasn’t until 1837 that a carved pumpkin was called a Jack-o-Lantern and its first association with Halloween was in 1866.
As for Thanksgiving, it may have to do with the fact that pumpkins are integral to Native American cooking and a traditional part of an autumn harvest in both the U.S. and Canada. It is said that pumpkin pie became a Thanksgiving tradition when Pilgrims found it difficult to grow wheat flour in the unforgiving New England soil. The early settlers improvised and pumpkin pie was born, first being cooked inside a pumpkin and roasted over bonfires.
Traditionally planted in early July, pumpkins are hardy little growers and pack a wallop of nutritional punch. They are a great source of beta carotene, rich in fiber, high in vitamins especially Vitamin C, low in calories, reduce blood pressure, boost immunity, are loaded with potassium, the pulp is good for your skin, and even support fertility through their high iron levels.
And don’t forget the seeds, also known as pepitas, which are high in calcium, magnesium and fiber; help absorb glucose and balance levels of liver glucose; and boost sleep and heart health.
Pumpkins are also very versatile. Nearly every part of them is edible and they can be boiled, steamed, or roasted and made into everything from mashed sides to pumpkin pies. You can also drink them, as Starbucks has so famously proved. The coffee giant introduced pumpkin spice lattes to us in a brilliant 2003 marketing campaign and today pumpkin spice everything can be found everywhere. Pumpkin flavoring is also popular in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
As with anything, whole and pure is the way to go although many a pumpkin pie recipe, including my grandma’s, calls for canned pumpkin. Purists favor real pumpkin filling, but if you opt for “100 percent pure pumpkin” instead of “pumpkin pie mix” or pumpkin puree, you are good to go. Just remember that many canned options contain added sugar as well as other winter squashes like butternut, but a half-cup of canned pumpkin has more Vitamin C than a serving of kale, 20 percent of your daily potassium, and 3 grams of fiber. Even Fido can benefit from pumpkin. Many veterinarians recommend canned pumpkin and its high fiber content as a dietary supplement for dogs and cats suffering from constipation or diarrhea. I can personally attest to this as one of our Beagles has been known to benefit from just a dab of canned pumpkin in a bowl of food. Not bad for something out of can, right?
Pumpkin’s allure does not end in the kitchen. Fall is a pumpkin lovers paradise, as pumpkin décor is not only welcoming but cozy. Don’t go crazy though. Limit your pumpkin pieces to a few and think out of the box like the pink ones above. Yes they’re fall-ish, but they’re also chic.
And if all of this isn’t enough to get you on the pumpkin train, I offer up two folk tales: Cinderella and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Who can forget Cinderella’s glorious pumpkin carriage and I read that in some versions of Sleepy Hollow, the headless horsemen uses a pumpkin as a substitute head. Not as precious as a gilded coach, but to each his own.
On that note, I leave you with two recipes I recently found. One is for author and spiritual mama Susie Davis’ mom’s pumpkin bread that looks delicious, as well as a tried and true way to roast pumpkin seeds. Enjoy!
Mimi’s Pumpkin Bread
(courtesy Susie Davis)
3 1/3 cup flour
3 cups sugar
2 t baking soda
1 ½ t salt
2 t cinnamon
2 t nutmeg
½ t ginger
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 cups canned pure pumpkin
Combine dry ingredients. Add remaining ingredients and mix well with hand mixer. Pour in two greased and floured loaf pans. Bake at 350 for 1 hour. (If using a glass pan, decrease heat to 325.) Allow to cool 15 minutes before removing from pan to cool on wire rack. Cool one hour before slicing.
How to Roast Pumpkin Seeds
Start with the right pumpkin. A good pumpkin will feel hard and smooth and not have soft spots or discoloration. Its stem should also be firm. Then….
Cut off top of pumpkin and scoop out seeds.
Transfer seeds to large bowl of water and clean, separating and discarding any pulp.
Transfer seeds to colander, rinse, and pat dry with towels.
Heat large pot with 6 cups water and boil. Add salt and seed and boil 10 minutes. Drain seeds and dry.
Spread cleaned seeds on baking sheet and bake at 250 about 1 hour.
Toss with olive oil and roast at 350 for 20 minutes, tossing occasionally.
Cool completely and then store in airtight container.