Pumpkins have been present in North America because 7000 B.C. and likely had their beginnings in Mexico. It’s thought that ancient civilizations consumed just the seeds, which have been 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 once they had been cleaned out.
Although introduced into Europe by explorer Christopher Columbus, who brought back seeds from the Americas from 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 daring chefs generated puddings and sweet desserts in the watery pulp, but overall, pumpkin pies weren’t showing up on the dining tables of British or French royalty. (After all, what did those upstarts throughout the pond in America know about fine cuisine, anyhow?)
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 readily stored, providing food during 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 Raccoon Poop flavor and his farm manager’s inability to wash them for storage. Surprisingly, foodie president Thomas Jefferson, who climbed acres of them in his famous gardens at Monticello, didn’t include them on the menus in his state dinners. Most the harvest went to feed his cows and pigs.
Gradually they gained fame as a dessert when nineteenth century homemakers started to mix the pulp with custards and bake it in a pie shell. However, 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, which all-American apple pie reigned supreme all through the year. After Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1863, the traditional dessert made its annual look but still remained somewhat of a regional favorite, primarily from the Midwest, where many pumpkins were grown, in addition to the Northeast. Southerners favored their sweet potato pie variant, and Westerners were late to the party. (At least where pumpkin was worried.)
The initial Jack-o-lanterns were actually made from potatoes and turnips as a piece 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 standard pumpkin. Seeing the local pumpkin patch remains a highlight for millions of children just before Halloween.
In the 1950s farmers could grow hybrids which were better for carving, and others with yummy and firmer flesh for ingestion. Shortly the once-a-year pie filling started to make its way back to dining tables year’round and expand its repertoire to include cakes, breads, scones and even cheesecake. The State of Illinois, that develops and cans approximately 90 percent of the nation’s pumpkin, endured rain damage for many decades, but in 2016, they had been gradually rebounding with a crop of 318 million pounds, worth $12 million, down from prior years of 754 million pounds with 90 million. (Now that is a good deal of pie.)
Nowadays we love our pumpkins. A favorite animated special with Charlie Brown of Peanuts fame shows up annual before the holidays. An old nursery rhyme character used a pumpkin to home his wife (Peter the Pumpkin Eater). And for those who are still back in the music of the 60s, a rock band from Chicago aptly calls themselves The Smashing Pumpkins, presumably following a favorite action late Halloween night. (Which is unappreciated by residents who need to clean up the following day.)
But even if you’re able to get a version of pumpkin beer, then you may want to have a pass.