Preferring Pumpkins

Pumpkin is the fruit of the species Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbita mixta, Cucurbita maxima, or Cucurbita moschata. Canned pumpkin comes from the tan-skinned Dickinson variety of Cucurbita moschata. Pumpkins are gourd-like winter squashes of the genus Cucurbita, along with  pipian, cushaw, butternut squash, some gourds, other winter squash, zucchini, other summer squash, and acorn squash. All belong to the family Cucurbitaceae, which includes chayotecucumbers, honeydew melons, cantaloupe, and watermelons. The plant has both the male and female flowers on it. The female flower is distinguished by the small ovary at the base of the petals. These bright and colorful flowers have extremely short life spans and may only open for as short a time as one day. Pumpkins are native to Central America and Mexico, but now grow on six continents. In some countries like Australia, New Zealand, and much of Asia any thick-skinned winter squash is called a pumpkin. In the United States it is mostly the Connecticut field variety and others that are orange and ribbed.

Pumpkins have been grown in Mexico since at least 7000 to 5500 B.C. These early pumpkins were likely a crook-necked variety that stored well, not the creased orange ones you see today. Variations of squash and pumpkins were cultivated in small settlements along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans long before the emergence of corn.

After corn was introduced, ancient farmers learned to grow squash with corn and beans using the “Three Sisters” companion-planting tradition. The Three Sisters are squash, corn, and beans, which grow and thrive together. corn serves as the natural trellis for the beans to grow on. The bean roots set nitrogen in the soil to nourish the corn. The bean vines help to stabilize the corn stalks on windy days. The squash plants shelter the shallow roots of the corn and shade the ground to discourage weeds and preserve moisture. The early Native American farmers were practicing an early form of sustainable agriculture.

These early Native Americans roasted pumpkin strips over campfires and used them as a food source. Pumpkins helped the northern Native Americans make it through long cold winters. They used the sweet flesh in numerous ways: roasted, baked, parched, boiled, and dried. They ate pumpkin seeds and also used them as a medicine. The blossoms were added to stews. Dried pumpkin could be stored and ground into flour. They dried the shells and used them as bowls and containers to store grain, beans, and seeds. They pounded and dried the pumpkin flesh into strips, and wove the strips into mats which they used for trading.

Pumpkins were perfect for mariners from all over the world to bring back to their countries.  Columbus likely carried pumpkin seeds back with him to Spain, where pumpkins were grown to feed pigs, but not as a human food source.

The word “pumpkin” comes from the Greek pepon (πέπων) for a “large melon.” Pepon became the French pompon. In 1584, when French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence region of North America, he reported finding “gros pompons.”  The English changed pompon to “pumpion.” Shakespeare referred to the “pumpion” in his Merry Wives of Windsor, which is thought to have been written around 1597. American colonists changed “pumpion” into “pumpkin.”

Indians introduced pumpkins and squashes to the Pilgrims. Historians think that the settlers were not very impressed by the Indians’ pumpkins until they had to survive their first harsh winter when about half of the settlers died from scurvy and exposure. The Native Americans brought pumpkins as gifts to the first settlers, and taught them the many used for the pumpkin. Pumpkins became an important food source for the pilgrims, as they stored well, which meant they would have a nutritious food source during the winter months. Pumpkins were served at the second Thanksgiving celebration.

When you picture an early Thanksgiving, you might think of a Pilgrim woman in a starched white apron holding a pumpkin pie with a perfectly fluted crust . But there were no ovens for baking and no wheat flour for crusts. The Pilgrims cut the top off of a pumpkin, scooped the seeds out, and filled the cavity with cream, honey, eggs, and spices. They placed the top back on and carefully buried it in the hot ashes of a cooking fire. When it finished cooking, they lifted the blackened gourd from the earth and scooped the contents out along with the cooked flesh of the shell like a custard.

Without pumpkins many of the early settlers might have died from starvation. The following poem is a testament to the Pilgrims dependence upon pumpkins for food:

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.” —Pilgrim verse, circa 1633

The new Americans heartily embraced the sweet, multi-purpose fruit. The colonists used pumpkin not only as a side dish and dessert, but also in soups. The Pilgrims were also known to make pumpkin beer. They fermented a combination of persimmons, hops, maple sugar, and pumpkin to make this early colonial brew.

In early colonies, pumpkin shells were used as a template for haircuts to ensure a round and uniform finished cut. As a result of this practice, New Englanders were sometimes nicknamed “pumpkin heads.”

In 1651, Francois Pierre la Varenne, the famous French chef and author of one of the most important French cookbooks of the 17th century, wrote a cookbook called Le Vrai Cuisinier Francois (The True French Cook). It was translated and published in England as The French Cook in 1653. It has a recipe for a pumpkin pie that included the pastry:

Tourte of pumpkin – Boile it with good milk, pass it through a straining pan very thick, and mix it with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds; let all be very thin. Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it. After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve.

The pumpkin is referred to in Cinderella (1697), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), and Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater (1825).

In the United States, pumpkins go hand in hand with the fall holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving. An orange fruit harvested in October, pumpkin is used to make soups, desserts and breads, and many Americans include pumpkin pie in their Thanksgiving meals.

Carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns is a popular Halloween tradition that originated hundreds of years ago in Ireland. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack,” who tricked the Devil several times, and got him to promise not to take his soul. As the legend goes, God would not allow Jack into heaven. The Devil, upset by the tricks Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries brought the jack o’lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins make perfect jack o’lanterns.

In America a traditional jack-o-lantern refers to a variety of pumpkin grown for its suitability for carving. They are fairly large in size, have upright strong walls, and most importantly a large hollow cavity.

The largest pumpkin pie ever baked was in 2005 and weighed 2,020 pounds. The heaviest pumpkin weighed 1,810 lb 8 oz and was presented by Chris Stevens at the Stillwater Harvest Fest in Stillwater, Minnesota, in October 2010.

Pumpkins are low in calories, fat, and sodium and high in fiber. They are good sources of vitamin A, B vitamins, potassium, protein, and iron. A 100-gram serving of raw pumpkin provides just 26 calories and contains no saturated fat or cholesterol; however, it is rich in fiber, antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins. Pumpkins are a food recommended by dietitians for controlling cholesterol and reducing weight.

Pumpkin is a storehouse of many antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E. With 7384 milligrams of vitamin A per 100 grams, pumpkin provides about 246% of your Daily Value (DV). It is also an excellent source of many natural poly-phenolic flavonoid compounds such as α and ß carotenes, cryptoxanthin, lutein, and zea-xanthin. Carotenes convert into vitamin A inside your body. Zea-xanthin is a natural antioxidant that filters ultra-violet rays in the macula lutea in the retinas of your eyes and helps protect you from age-related macular degeneration (ARMD). Pumpkin is a good source of B-complex group of vitamins like riboflavinfolate, niacin, vitamin B6, thiamine, and pantothenic acid. It is also rich source of minerals like copper, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus.

Pumpkin seeds indeed are an excellent source of fiber and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which are good for heart health. In addition, the seeds are concentrated sources of protein, minerals and health-benefiting vitamins. Just 100 grams of pumpkin seeds provide 559 calories, 30 g of protein, 110% RDA of iron, 4987 mg of niacin (31% RDA), selenium (17% of RDA), zinc (71%) and more, but no cholesterol. Further, the seeds are an excellent source of health promoting amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is converted to gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) activity in your brain, which in turn helps reduce anxiety and neurosis.

Nutrients in 100 Grams of Raw Pumpkin

Nutrient

Amount

DV

vitamin A 7384 IU

246%

vitamin C 9.0 mg

15%

copper 0.127 mg

14%

iron 0.80 mg

10%

riboflavin 0.110 mg

8.5%

vitamin E 1.06 mg

7%

potassium 340 mg

7%

pantothenic acid 0.298 mg

6%

carbohydrates 6.50 g

5%

vitamin B6 0.061 mg

5%

phosphorus 44mg

5%

folate 16 mcg

4%

niacin 0.600 mg

4%

thiamine 0.050 mg

4%

magnesium 12 mg

3%

zinc 0.32 mg

3%

protein 1.0 g

2%

fiber 0.5 g

2%

calcium 21 mg

2%

Calories 26

1%

vitamin K 1.1 mcg

1%

fat 0.1 g

0.5%

sodium 1 mg

0.5%

manganese 0.125 mg

0.5%

selenium 0.3 mcg

<0.5%

Cholesterol 0 mg

0%

Carotene-α 515 mcg
Carotene-ß 3100 mcg
Crypto-xanthin-ß 2145 mcg
Lutein-zeaxanthin 1500 mcg

Look for mature pumpkins that are heavy for their size and feature a fine woody sound on tapping, and a dry, stout stem. Avoid pumpkins with wrinkles, cuts, or bruises.

At home, you can store a fully ripened pumpkin for many weeks in a cool, well-ventilated place at room temperature. However, cut sections should be placed inside the refrigerator where they can keep well for a few days.

Wash pumpkins thoroughly in running water in order to remove dust, soil, and any residual insecticides or fungicides. Cut the stem end and slice the whole fruit into two equal halves. Remove the central net-like structure and set aside the seeds. Then cut into pieces. In general, you’ll want small cubes for cooking.

Pumpkins are very versatile. Most parts of the pumpkin plant are edible, including the fleshy shell, the seeds, the leaves, and even the flowers. 

When ripe, pumpkins can be boiled, baked, steamed, stewed, fried, or roasted; however, steaming retains the most nutrients. Pumpkin can be eaten mashed or in soups and purees. You can also make it into pie, which are a traditional staple of the Canadian and American Thanksgiving holidays. You can also make it into pancakes, quick breads and muffins, soufflés, and custards. In Canada, Mexico, the United States, Europe and China, the seeds are often roasted and eaten as a snack.

You can eat pumpkins that are still small and green in the same way as summer squash like zucchini. In the Middle East, pumpkin is used for sweet dishes like halawa yaqtin. In South Asian countries such as India, pumpkin is cooked with butter, sugar, and spices in a dish called kadu ka halwa. Pumpkin is used to make sambar in Udupi cuisine. In Guangxi province, China, the leaves of the pumpkin plant are eaten as a cooked vegetable or in soups. In Australia and New Zealand, pumpkin is often roasted in conjunction with other vegetables. In Japan, small pumpkins are served in savory dishes, including tempura. In Myanmar, pumpkins are used in both savory cooking and candied desserts. The seeds are a popular snack. In Thailand, small pumpkins are steamed with custard inside and served as a dessert. In Italy, pumpkin is used as a savory stuffing for ravioli. Also, pumpkin can be used to flavor both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages.

In the southwestern United States and Mexico, pumpkin and squash flowers are a popular and widely available food. They may be used to garnish dishes, and they may be dredged in a batter then fried in oil. Pumpkin leaves are a popular vegetable in the Western and central regions of Kenya; they are called seveve, and are an ingredient of mukimo, respectively, whereas the pumpkin itself is usually boiled or steamed. The seeds are popular with children who roast them on a pan before eating them.

Recipe

Pumpkin Cheesecake


This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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