Pumpkins have been present in North America because 7000 B.C. and likely 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’s believed that ancient civilizations consumed only the seeds, which were roasted before ingestion. The flesh of the early pumpkins was bitter and much more acceptable for animal feed, but the pumpkins themselves made handy bins and vessels 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 adopt the pumpkin for human consumption, relegating it to animal fodder and food to 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 throughout 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 the versatile squash. Easy to grow, it became a staple of the ancient pilgrims and has been used for soup, veggies and stews.The first Thanksgiving feast included pumpkin along with winter squash varieties, which were easily stored, providing food through the long Northeastern winters.
Colonial cooks shortly created new dishes with pumpkin, and it was popular in stews, boiled and buttered, blended 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 farm but expressed disappointment at the sour flavor and his farm manager’s inability to dry them for storage. Surprisingly, foodie president Thomas Jefferson, who grew acres of them in his famous gardens at Monticello, didn’t include them on the menus at his state dinners. The majority of the crop went to feed his cows and pigs.
Gradually they gained fame 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 has been relegated to a seasonal holiday pie, as a growing number of fruits and vegetables became available, and that all-American apple pie reigned supreme all year long. After Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1863, the traditional dessert made its yearly look but still remained somewhat of a regional favorite, primarily in the Midwest, where many 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.)
How to Get Rid of Possums? 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 bad spirits. Irish immigrants found that the New World pumpkin much superior for carving, and the tradition was born here in the U.S. Over time, growing contests and dividing creativity have jumped, as we welcome dip 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 yummy 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 cakes, breads, scones and even cheesecake. Libby’s dominates the pumpkin market, which makes 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 nation’s pumpkin, endured rain damage for many decades, but in 2016, they were gradually rebounding with a crop of 318 million pounds, worth $12 million, still down from previous years of 754 million pounds with 90 million. (Now that’s a good deal 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 home his wife (Peter the Pumpkin Eater). 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 following a popular activity late Halloween night. (Which is unappreciated by residents who need to clean up the following day.)
No question, Americans secured their love affair with the pumpkin decades ago, with no end in sight. But even if you’re able to find a version of pumpkin beer, then you may want to have a pass.