The History of the Pumpkin
It is a gourd family plant sprouting tendrils and oversized, lobed leaves as it grows off thick and sticky vines. You wouldn’t think something fitting that description would be one of our most cherished fruits. But the pumpkin has come to be so valued and loved, it is actually used as a common term of endearment. When used for decoration, its hollowed-out interiors ironically light the way from the glow of summer into the darkness of winter, defining a season..and it is uniquely American.
The word “pumpkin” comes from the Greek pepon, which means “large melon.” The French changed that to pompon. The British converted it to “pumpion,” which eventually became “pumpkin” for American Colonists. While the origins of the word might have traveled among nations and across an ocean, the pumpkin is native to North America. The winter squash gets its typically dark yellow to deep orange color from pigments in the skin. It is a staple to Thanksgiving meals because of its late-summer and autumn harvest time. Native Americans used pumpkins as a food source, but would also dry and weave them into mats for trading.
Because pumpkins are used so widely for both food and recreation, it is one of the most popular harvest plants in the United States, with more than half a billion pounds grown annually. Most weigh between six to 18 pounds. This fall, the New York Botanical Garden put on display the largest pumpkin ever grown. Grown by Tim and Susan Mathison of Napa, Calif., it weighed in at 2,032 pounds. And it took less than four months to grow!
The use of pumpkins as jack-o’-lanterns began in the mid-1800s, when waves of Irish and Scottish immigrants began flooding America. The modern festival of Halloween comes from the Irish, who would carve faces into turnips and place candles inside to ward off evil spirits. When they settled in America, they replaced turnips with the easier-to-carve pumpkins.
While the pumpkin’s brightest moment may roll around on October 31st, the winter squash shines all season. After all, the reason the pumpkin became so popular among Colonists and remains so is because of its sweet taste and versatile properties. Its thick rind and edible flesh and seeds mean the melon can be used in so many ways, including mash, desserts, soups, bread, beer…and, of course, spiced lattes.
To keep the pumpkin center stage, try two fantastic recipes suggested by Amanda Hesser, Co-Founder and CEO of food52 and author of The Essential New York Times Cookbook, posted below.
What makes these two of her fall favorites?
Of the salted pumpkin caramels, Hesser says, “Imagine if a pumpkin pie collided with salted caramels—they were meant to be mashed together and they get along so well! But my favorite detail in this recipe is the layer of pepitas lining the bottom of the caramels. Your rich little nugget of butter and pumpkin is pleasantly interrupted by the crunchy seeds.”
Meta Given’s pumpkin pie also gets a ringing endorsement. “Meta Given, a cookbook author in the 1960s, has you caramelize the pumpkin before adding the spices, sugar, eggs and cream,” says Hesser, “and this single step, just a tiny trick, really, transforms the pie into something spectacular.”
Kafi Drexel is a media consultant and journalist based in New York.