Pumpkins have been present in North America since 7000 B.C. and probably had their beginnings in Mexico. A member of the squash family, the name means “large melon” in Greek (pepon), which the French called pompon. It is believed that early civilizations consumed only the seeds, which were roasted before eating. The flesh of the early pumpkins was bitter and more suitable for animal feed, but the pumpkins themselves made handy vessels and bowls after they were cleaned out.
Although introduced to Europe by explorer Christopher Columbus, who brought back seeds from the Americas in the late 1400s, Europeans were slow to embrace the pumpkin for human consumption, relegating it to animal fodder and food for the lower classes, eschewed by elite. Some adventurous chefs created puddings and sweet desserts from the watery pulp, but overall, pumpkin pies were not showing up on the dining tables of French or British royalty. (After all, what did those upstarts across the pond in America know about fine cuisine, anyway?)
Native Americans were growing pumpkins long before the first settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock and introduced them to this versatile squash. Easy to grow, it soon became a staple of the early pilgrims and was used for soup, vegetables and stews.The first Thanksgiving feast included pumpkin and other winter squash varieties, which were easily stored, providing food through the long Northeastern winters.
Colonial cooks soon created new dishes using pumpkin, and it was popular in stews, boiled and buttered, mixed into sweet puddings and even made into beer. Mashed and sweetened, the first pumpkin pies appeared in the late 1600s, and even George Washington grew pumpkins and squash on his plantation but expressed disappointment in the bitter taste and his farm manager’s inability to dry them for storage. (Pumpkin jerky?) Surprisingly, foodie president Thomas Jefferson, who grew acres of them in his famous gardens at Monticello, did not include them on the menus at his state dinners. The majority of the crop went to feed his cattle and pigs.
Gradually they gained popularity as a dessert when nineteenth century homemakers began to mix the pulp with custards and bake it in a pie shell. But it just never caught on like the apple and was relegated to a seasonal holiday pie, as more and more fruits and vegetables became available, and that all-American apple pie reigned supreme all year long. Once Thanksgiving was pronounced a national holiday in 1863, the traditional dessert made its yearly appearance but still remained somewhat of a regional favorite, primarily in the Midwest, where most pumpkins were grown, as well as the Northeast. Southerners preferred their sweet potato pie variation, and Westerners were late to the party. (At least where pumpkin was concerned.)
After WWII, when Americans took Halloween more seriously, the upsurge of carving pumpkins spawned a new renaissance of the orange gourd. The first Jack-o-lanterns were actually made from potatoes and turnips as part of an old Irish legend to ward off evil spirits. Irish immigrants found the New World pumpkin far superior for carving, and the tradition was born here in the U.S. Over the years, growing contests and carving creativity have soared, as we welcome Autumn with the traditional pumpkin. Visiting the local pumpkin patch is still a highlight for millions of children just before Halloween.
In the 1950s farmers were able to grow hybrids which were better for carving, and others with tasty and firmer flesh for eating. Soon the once-a-year pie filling began to make its way back to dining tables year ’round and expand its repertoire to include muffins, breads, scones and even cheesecake. Libby’s dominates the pumpkin market, making it readily available in canned form, both plain and ready-to-bake filling. The State of Illinois, which grows and cans approximately 90% of the country’s pumpkin, suffered rain damage for several years, but in 2016, they were slowly rebounding with a harvest of 318 million pounds, worth $12 million, still down from previous years of 754 million pounds with 90 million. (Now that’s a lot of pie.)
These days we relish our pumpkins. A popular animated special with Charlie Brown of Peanuts fame shows up yearly before the holidays. An old nursery rhyme character used a pumpkin to house his wife (Peter the Pumpkin Eater). Even Cinderella’s elegant coach turned into a pumpkin after the ball. And for those of you who are still back in the music of the 60s, a rock group from Chicago aptly calls themselves The Smashing Pumpkins, presumably after a popular activity late Halloween night. (Which is unappreciated by residents who have to clean up the next day.)
No question, Americans secured their love affair with the pumpkin decades ago, with no end in sight. But even if you can find a version of pumpkin beer, you might want to take a pass.