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Archive for Thursday, November 27, 2008

Pumpkins were a staple of the early American diet

November 27, 2008

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Autumn holiday traditions leave me wondering which came first: the jack-o’-lantern or the pie. Was an ancient pumpkin carver looking for uses for the scraps? Did a primitive cook wonder what to do with the pumpkin shell that was left? Much to my surprise, the two most common uses for pumpkins are only related in modern times.

Pumpkins are one of the few vegetables native to our country. Besides being a major component of Native American diets, strips of pumpkin were dried and used to make mats prior to the arrival of Europeans. Pumpkin seeds found in Mexican burial caves date back to 7000-5000 B.C.

European settlers produced the first pies by cutting a hole in the side of the pumpkin, removing the seeds and adding spices, then baking the whole pumpkin in hot ashes. A poem written in 1623 jokes about eating pumpkin for every meal “instead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies.”

Ancient pumpkins probably bore little resemblance to the colossal orange spheres available in the supermarket today. Closely related to winter squash, pumpkins are thought to have been smaller and more gourdlike.

Jack-o’-lanterns were a European tradition. The first jack-o’-lanterns were carved from turnips and lit with a lump of coal. Beets and potatoes were also sometimes used.

When early American colonists discovered pumpkins’ carve-ability, pumpkin culture began to change. We strayed from eating pumpkins to decorating them. As new fruits and vegetables were introduced into the states, pumpkins’ importance for subsistence declined. Pumpkins seeds were exported to other countries, too; pumpkins are now grown on every continent but Antarctica.

Over the years, pumpkins of the brightest orange and largest size were selected over those with the sweetest flavor. Giant pumpkin contests (with winners weighing hundreds of pounds) and the introduction of miniature “Jack-Be-Little” varieties are truly changing the face of pumpkins. White pumpkins and striped pumpkins of every shape and size are becoming more readily available as production of food-grade pumpkins declines.

Even though pumpkin pie and jack-o’-lanterns had little to do with each other in their early years, both are important in fall tradition. I think next year I just might try growing my own.

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