From Cinderella’s coach to Peter the Pumpkin Eater, to the Headless Horseman, Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin, the Smashing Pumpkins, and of course, Halloween, the pumpkin is one of our most recognizable seasonal symbols, synonymous with autumn.
Pumpkins are a type of winter squash native to North America whose existence can be traced back thousands of years. Pumpkins are one of the most popular crops grown in the U.S., with 1.5 billion pounds produced annually.
The most popular type of pumpkins, the classic jack-o-lantern style, are referred to as “field pumpkins” and are grown almost entirely for their looks. Their flesh is usually too tasteless and stringy to be used in the kitchen. Smaller, similar pumpkins called Sugar Pie, Baby Bear, Cinderella or Cheese Pumpkin will serve that purpose, as well as pumpkin-like squash such as Hubbard, Blue Hokkaido and Red Kuri.
That said, almost every part of the pumpkin is edible. (Pumpkins are high in vitamin A, beta-carotene and potassium.) In colonial times, the shell was used as a pie crust ingredient, before anyone even thought of it as a filling. In China and Kenya, pumpkin plant leaves are served as a cooked vegetable or in soup. Pumpkin and squash blossoms are popular in Mexico and the U.S. southwest. Pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, are a popular snack worldwide. As a decorative item, pumpkins can be hollowed-out, shell left intact, and used as a festive tureen for winter soups and savory stews.
The Halloween tradition dates back three millennia to the annual Celtic celebration Samhain, which started at sundown on October 31st and lasted until sundown on November 1st. Back then, jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips or gourds, and set in windows and on porches to welcome the dearly deceased and to act as protection against evil spirits. When the Irish emigrated to the U.S. they discovered pumpkins in abundance and found them easier to carve than a turnip. The rest is American history.