Pumpkin: A Contemplation
The iconic fruit of fall offers so much more than just pie.
Pumpkins are part of the iconography of autumn: of south-bound geese overhead, a faded orange harvest moon hovering near the horizon, burning leaves, patches of pumpkins, emerging bright from under a leafy shroud, or stacked by their dozens at farm stands.
A pumpkin, however, is rarely just a pumpkin. The fruit of fall has been transformed by writers and artists into classic images that capture our imagination. Remember the terrifying headless horseman materializing out of moonlit mists, in Washington Irving’s, Legend of Sleepy Hollow? Pursuing the hapless Ichabod Crane, the fearful goblin, long black cape billowing behind, his rearing stead breathing fire, slowly hoists his head above his shoulders, eyes burning bright as sin. With a cold, defiant laugh, he flings his head at the terrified schoolmaster and rides menacingly into the night. It took its toll on the poor Ichabod who was never seen again in Sleepy Hollow, and imbedded itself in the imagination of many a young reader. The scattered smithereens of skull was but a Jack O’Lantern — put to familiar, if dramatic, use.
The origin of the name Jack O’Lantern is nearly as bizarre as Irving’s tale. According to Irish legend, “Stingy Jack,” was turned away from Heaven’s gate for being a churlish miser. He had also tricked the devil into not claiming his soul, and so wasn’t welcomed in hell either. Jack was condemned to ceaselessly wander the earth with a lantern in hand (originally made from a hollowed out turnip) until Judgment Day. Before long, the wanderer and the lantern merged into a single entity ironically assumed to provide protection against roving demons.
Pumpkins have enjoyed other odd, even magical, associations. In 1697 Charles Perrault’s Cinderella rode to the ball in an enchanted, pale-as-blue-moonlight coupé that returned to its edible origins at midnight. It was the Frenchman who added the magic pumpkin as well as the glass slipper, and the fairy godmother to a story he pinched from the Pentamarone (1634) by Giambattista Basile. Many are the transformations — mice into horses, lizards into footmen, a rat into a coachman and Cinderella (Cendrillon, lit. cinder-maid) herself from a servant-girl into the high-born young lady she always was. The Grimm Brothers based their fairy tale on Perrault’s in the 19th century, and Disney Studios animated the story into a box office block-buster in 1950.
In his tale, Feathertop, Nathaniel Hawthorne has the witch Mother Rigby transform her pipe puffing, pumpkin-headed scarecrow into a living man. “Many a fine gentleman has a pumpkin head, as well as my scarecrow,” says the enchantress. Charles Schultz’s Linus stubbornly awaits the arrival of the “Great Pumpkin” who fails to materialize. Tim Burton’s Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. Goosebumps’ R.L. Stine wrote of the potency of pumpkin potions, and pumpkin juice figures into the beverage choices of students at the Hogwart’s school. The pumpkin’s ability to inspire have never waned.
The history of the fruit of autumn is far more ancient. Fossilized pumpkin rinds and seeds dating back thousands of years BCE have been found in the Peruvian Andes. These remains reveal that the fruit was used as a food, as cooking vessels, and made into ceremonial masks. Indigenous and essential to life throughout the Americas, it is little surprise that among the first peace offerings given to Spanish explorers were pumpkin seeds.
In the 16th Century, St. Lawrence Seaway explorer Jacques Cartier reported that the indigenous people ate heartily of gros melons. Soon, contemporary French botanists classified the New World wonder as pompons, from the Greek for melon pepōn (lit. ripened). A century later pompon was Anglicized to pumpion.
During the Pilgrims’ second Thanksgiving in 1623, pumpkin was a featured menu item served boiled, baked, fried in cakes, fermented into ale and fashioned into a pie sweetened with maple syrup. One rhyming pilgrim was moved to clumsy versification: “We have pumpkins in the morning, pumpkins at noon; if it were not for pumpkins we would be undone soon.” More adept with survival cookery than heroic couplets, pumpkins (and other squash and gourds) had become important staples in the colonists’ diet.
Cucurbita pepo, the cultivated plants of the genus Cucurbita, include crooknecks, straight necks, acorns, vegetable marrows (spaghetti squash, etc.), pattypan, zucchini, gourds and pumpkins; most are destined for culinary use. Pumpkins produce fruits on running or climbing vines. To be painfully exact, a pumpkin is a berry that forms from a single pistil of the pumpkin flower. These ‘berries’ have been known to reach astounding proportions. Size is a preoccupation for many competitive pumpkin growers; a 13.6 kg (30 pound) pumpkin is not uncommon, some like C. maxima, Atlantic Giant, surpass 45 kg (100 pounds). In annual competitions the largest pumpkins can weigh in at over 907 kg (2,000 pounds).
Pumpkins and other squash are highly versatile and may be eaten sweet or savory. Surprisingly, tinned pumpkin is as nutritious as fresh; curiously most 100% pure pumpkin often contains butternut squash. Pumpkin packer Libby’s® is responsible for about 85% of all pumpkin that goes into a can. Mostly it is Dickinson pumpkins, but the FDA allows for mixtures of “golden-fleshed, sweet squash … with field pumpkins” to be labeled 100% pumpkin. The pumpkin is 95% water and 4% carbohydrates, is rich in beta carotene, delivers vitamin C and A, and a half cup has only 41 calories.
Many of the varieties of pumpkin found today originated in North America. They range in color from dark green to shades of grey to white, from yellow to the deep, vivid orange of the Halloween pumpkin. Smooth, mottled, gnarled or ribbed, round or squat, tiny or immense, often with a strikingly vivid interior — a pumpkin is a thing of terrible beauty.
The so-called Jack O’ Lantern variety has stringy, watery flesh and is best for carving a Jack O’ Lantern as is the Trick O’ Treat (10-12 pounds). If you intend to paint the pumpkin the smoother surface of the Orange Smoothie, the Lumina (pale white), or Cotton Candy pumpkin are best and all good to eat. Some which serve both purposes, carving and cooking including, are Spooktacular (2-5 pounds), Spirit (8-12 pounds) and the large (15-25 pounds), bright orange, slightly ribbed Connecticut Field pumpkin.
True “pie” pumpkins often have tough, thick skins and five-sided stout stems. For many the small Sugar Pie, aka New England Pie pumpkin is the “standard” for texture and taste; while others swear by the excellent flesh and flavor of the larger, pale orange Winter Luxury (up to 2.2 kg/5 pounds).
Heirloom varieties of the “Cheese” Pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata) have been around since before the American Revolution. Called cheese not for its evocative shape but rather for what we call pumpkin butter, previously known as pumpkin cheese.
A desirable heirloom “cheese” pumpkin, the deeply ribbed, Pink Porcelain Doll (7-11 kg/15-24 pounds) has a complexion that resembles the blush on a 19th century bisque doll. Paler, flatter, smaller, but no less enchanting (except for the name), is the Long Island Cheese (3-5 kg/6-10 pounds). Buff colored, vaguely resembling a wheel of cheese, this tasty heirloom is popular with dedicated pie crafters.
The “Cinderella” Pumpkin, called the Rouge Vif d’Etampes was introduced to America in 1883 by Philadelphia’s W. Atlee Burpee & Company, commemorates the magical carriage, and can be found at farm stands and garden centers. The tasty Quaker pie pumpkin, in the heirloom category, is dusty white with flesh like old ivory, and first appeared in the 1888 Burpee seed catalogue.
Unexpected, dramatic and rather stylish are ghostly white pumpkins like Casper (5-7 kg/10-16 pounds) with a striking orange interior, Moonshine (4-5.5 kg/8-12 pounds) sporting a dark green stem, Valenciano (5.5-8 kg/12-18 pounds) and the largest Polar Bear (14-29 kg/30-65 pounds).
Ghoulish or grand, the season is upon us to give the pumpkin its turn in the starlight as an icon, an inspiration, or an ingredient.
Pumpkins and other squash should be bought unblemished and firm with a stout, firmly attached stem (an indication of freshness). A pale spot is where the ripening fruit made contact with the ground. Pre-cut pumpkin should be kept in a zip-lock bag and will last a week in the fridge. An uncut pumpkin or winter squash will keep a month or longer in the refrigerator.
Pumpkins stir the cook’s imagination. Beyond the seasonal requirement that it be put in a pie, pumpkin can be made into a hearty soup; can add intrigue to pasta; and is welcomed as muffins, a fragrant cheesecake, cookies, even ice cream.
Fresh Pumpkin Purée
Steam chunks of unpeeled pumpkin, in about one inch of just boiling water covered until tender (easily pierced with a fork). Drain, cool, and peel. Or core a medium sized pumpkin leaving skin on; cut into manageable pieces and wrap in tin foil. Bake in a 177°C (350ºF) oven for about 45 minutes, until tender; cool and peel. Purée in a blender or food processor.
If using as puree for soup, pies, bread etc.; process pumpkin chunks with an immersion blender or food processor. Place in a paper towel-lined colander set over a plate and allow to drain excess liquid. Purée should have the same thickness as solid-pack tinned pumpkin. Half a kilogram (1 pound) of uncooked pumpkin yields about 237 ml (1 cup) cooked purée.