Pumpkin flavored ice cream. Pumpkin flavored coffee drinks. Pumpkin cakes and pies. Plastic pumpkins. Fresh pumpkins. Large pumpkins. Tiny pumpkins.
How did pumpkins become synonymous with autumn? Let’s take a look at the history of pumpkins and at some interesting pumpkin trivia.
The History of the "Pumpkin"
Historians believe pumpkins — which are technically fruits, not vegetables, since they contain seeds — originated in Central America some 5,000 years ago. Today, pumpkins grow in every continent except for Antarctica.
Native Americans were fond of eating roasted and baked pumpkin. They also dried long strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats they created.
When Jacques Cartier, the French explorer, was in the St. Lawrence River area, he took note of what he called “pompons” or “large melons.” “Pompions” was the English translation, and some of the “large melons” must have made their way back across the Atlantic because, in his play "The Merry Wives of Windsor," William Shakespeare mentions a "pompion.”
The word morphed again with the American colonists, who changed it into "pumpkin." In fact, Washington Irving uses the word “pumpkin” in his "Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
Pumpkins were part of the Pilgrims’ diet. The following poem from 1633 shows the importance of the pumpkin as a food source to the Pilgrim:
“For pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon."
In fact, did you know that early colonists in this country even made pumpkin beer with a combination of hops, maple sugar, and pumpkin?
Early settlers also used scooped out and dried pumpkin shells to help give boys and young men a uniform haircut. As a result, boys were sometimes nicknamed “pumpkin heads.” (Remind anyone of the infamous “bowl cut” of the 90's?)
Today, American farms grow more than 1.5 million pounds of pumpkins each year, primarily for processing. In recent decades, many small farms have found seasonal success with you-pick pumpkin sales and other fall family activities surrounding their pumpkin patches. The states that produce the most pumpkins are Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.
Pumpkin Care and Storage
A member of the gourd family, a pumpkin is about 90 percent water. Pumpkins require 75 to 100 frost-free days to grow, so they need to be planted in late spring or early summer to be ready in time for Halloween.
Although they appear to have tough outer skin, pumpkins are easily bruised and are therefore susceptible to molding and rotting.
Fresh whole pumpkins will keep for a few months if handled and stored properly. The stem will continue to nourish the fruit after it is cut, so look for pumpkins with two to four inches of stem still visible.
Because of all that water content, pumpkins should feel heavy for their size. They store best in temperatures of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, such as in a cool garage or a basement. Don’t place pumpkins too close together for storage. Air needs to circulate freely, or mold and moisture can build up.
Always wash the outside of a pumpkin before cutting it, so that you do not transfer any bacteria from the soil to the interior of the fruit.
Cut-up pumpkin will stay fresh in airtight containers for two to four days in your refrigerator before you use it. You also can freeze pumpkin in sealed bags or containers it for six to eight months. After that period, it still will safe to eat it, but it will have lost much of its flavor.
For longer-term storage, consider canning your diced fresh pumpkin.
Bonus Facts About Pumpkins
The record for the world's largest pumpkin was set at the Stillwater Harvest Fest in Minnesota in October 2010. It weighed 1,810 pounds and was more than five feet in diameter.
The world’s largest pumpkin pie was more than five feet in diameter and weighed over 350 pounds. It contained 80 pounds of cooked pumpkin, 12 dozen eggs and 36 pounds of sugar.
The tradition of carving Jack-o-Lantern predates New World immigration. The Irish and Scottish carved scary faces into turnips and potatoes for centuries before any Irish or Scottish immigrants settled in America. Then they transferred the tradition to the North American pumpkin.