A New World Native, A Flyover Mainstay
It’s October and here in the United States doorways and stoops are decorated with the ubiquitous orange almost-orbs known as pumpkins. They are left whole, often parked next to a pot of hardy mums. They are carved as jack-o-lanterns with faces for Halloween, illuminated at night by candles placed inside. They are, in short, pretty much a de facto symbol of October, even moreso than former Oakland A (and Mr. October) Reggie Jackson.
From the genus Cucurbita, specifically C. pepo, the pumpkin is of North and Meso American origin (its seeds have been traced to approximately 7000 BCE). The Cucurbita genus includes the pumpkin’s many relatives, including the hard winter squashes like acorn, butternut, hubbard, and my personal favorite, kabocha; the more delicate summer squashes (like zucchini) and cucumbers and melons are also in the Cucurbit family tree (take that Ancestry.com!). Part of traditional Native American cuisine, dried pumpkin strips were used to make mats and the seeds were used for native medicines. And, although a sweetened, baked pumpkin dish may well have been part of the first Thanksgiving, the pumpkin pie decidedly was not—no ovens! Pumpkins were stuffed with honey and spices, then baked in ashes, but not in the familiar pie form.
The Word “Pumpkin”
The way to our word “pumpkin” began with πέπων (latinized as pepon), meaning “large melon” in Greek. Why the Greek origin for a New World plant? Well, melons (not pumpkins or winter squash) likely emerged in North Africa and Asia, specifically Egypt, Persia (modern-day Iran), and India. Anyway, pepon became pompon in French, then pumpion in England, eventually morphing into pumpkin in the North American British colonies.
Illinois—Our Pumpkin Epicenter
Although many of us make pumpkin pies come October and November, some fewer of us make the pies from an actual pumpkin. Rather, we buy canned pumpkin (whether pure or spiced and sold as “pumpkin pie filling”); often, there’s a pie recipe on the labels of those cans. And no wonder—to make the requisite pumpkin puree, one has to cut up the pumpkin and remove the seeds and stringy bits, cook the pumpkin, and then puree it (and possibly drain it if watery) before adding the rest of the ingredients. It’s simply easier to use canned pumpkin (which yields a consistently fine result).
So, where do our cans and cans and cans of pumpkin come from? Well, if you’d guessed “Illinois”, you’d likely be correct! Illinois is the top pumpkin-producing state, with about 90% of the share of commercial pumpkin production; in 2008, almost half a billion pounds of pumpkins for processing were grown in The Land of Lincoln. Flyover neighbors Michigan and Ohio are also in the top six. Indiana used to be a top producer, but has fallen out of the top six (as per 2013 data). Still, a lot of Flyover-ness founding PumpkinMania.
Where, O Where, in the Land of Lincoln
Morton, Illinois, between Bloomington and Peoria and easily accessible from Interstates 74 and 155, is the self-described Pumpkin Capital of the World. Even if they didn’t describe themselves this way, someone else would. After all, Morton is home to a Libby’s™ (a Nestlé subsidiary) pumpkin processing plant. Eighty-five percent of the world’s pumpkin is canned in Morton. It’s no wonder the town (administratively a village) holds an annual Pumpkin Festival each September. They’ve been hosting this for almost 50 years!
Of Nutrition and Health
Although we don’t exactly think of pumpkin pie or pumpkin bars or pumpkin roll or pumpkin spice lattes1 as healthy, pumpkin itself is a pretty nutritious food. For one thing, it’s a Vitamin A powerhouse (although you knew that just from seeing its brilliant orange color). One-half cup has 200% of the daily RDA, largely as beta-carotene. But pumpkin also gives you plenty of potassium and fiber, too. All this for only 50 calories! The pie is starting to look pretty healthy, isn’t it? In fact, it’s probably one of the more benign Thanksgiving desserts you can eat, assuming you skip the sweetened whipped cream (which I would NEVER do).
While canned pumpkin makes creating your delicacies easier (and requires far less of a time investment), you may be up the challenge of starting from scratch with an actual pumpkin. Make sure you select the proper pumpkin. Do NOT use your large jack-o-lantern pumpkin for culinary purposes—the flesh is typically stringy and flavorless. Look for pie pumpkins (such as a Baby Pam Sugar Pie or Winter Luxury pumpkin)—they are smaller than your carving variety2. You can also use a butternut squash, which results in a terrific pie3. In fact, the pumpkin you buy in cans may contain butternut squash as well!
1Which, by the way, don’t actually contain any pumpkin. That said, I do like them and usually have a couple during their season.
2A 2.5 to 3 lb. pumpkin should yield enough for a 9-inch pie. That said, I have had mixed luck with pie pumpkins. Usually they are fairly sweet, but last year I roasted one for the puree and the flesh was watery and insipid.
3Some people, such as the New York Times writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark recommends butternut squash.
The Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson, 2nd edition (Tom Jaine, ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2006.
The New Food Lover’s Companion, 4th edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, Barron’s, Hauppauge, New York, 2007.