How did Americans banish the pumpkin from the cooking pot?

In America, we are particularly fond of Halloween. But long before Halloween turned into the $6.9 billion holiday it is today, pumpkins were already synonymous with the autumn harvest…and the American “ideal.”

As I wrote yesterday, pumpkins are the quintessential autumn vegetable. That’s because they have one of the longest growing seasons of any North American food–up to 125 days. And they are among the last crops harvested in the fall. Plus, Native Americans used pumpkins as part of their three-crop farming system together with beans and corn. And English colonists depended heavily on local resources, such as pumpkins, to survive in the New World. This tradition continued especially in rugged rural New England in the early United States.

Following the Native American practice, colonial farmers often planted pumpkins in cornfields. They also ate cooked pumpkin. A common one-pot meal called succotash featured boiled beans, maize, and pompions (or pumpkins). They also made pumpkin ale and beer.

Colonists also prepared sweet pumpkin dishes with spices like allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. They also used molasses and rum, less expensive byproducts of sugar, from the Caribbean in the “triangle trade.” The spices all came through the “China trade” to ports like Boston, Baltimore, New York, and Charleston.

Pumpkin farming became a point of pride, productivity, and self-sufficiency among rural colonists–indeed, a symbol of colonial America. And by 1776, the pumpkin and pumpkin farming became meaningful emblems of American identity and independence.

Thomas Jefferson used the pumpkin to make a political statement as well. Every man could plant and harvest pumpkins. And every woman could prepare them into food. This practice embodied the Jeffersonian ideal of agrarian democracy in the new nation of self-sufficient, land-holding farmers.

But in the South, they also grew different cash crops, such as rice, cotton and tobacco. So, by the 1800s, people came to associate the pumpkin primarily with New England.

But even in New England, more practical crops soon became readily available. And eventually, even New Englanders came to value the pumpkin more as a symbol of America rather than an actual food crop.

Henry David Thoreau, writing in the mid-1800s, used the pumpkin as a symbol of Nature itself. He rejected the industrialized, furnished, “carpentered world.” And he famously wrote, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

The pumpkin first appeared as a jack-o’-lantern at about the time Washington Irving wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Although Halloween was not yet an American holiday, Irish legends told of the jack-o’-lantern–a trickster forced to wander between heaven and hell. African Americans in the South called him the “jack ma lantern.” Other legends from the era describe the will-o-the-wisp, an inexplicable light emanating from a dark forest or dense swamp.

These legends influenced Irving’s short story. He describes a ghost that hurls a pumpkin in the dark woods at night. And for the first time, Irving combined the pumpkin and jack-o-lantern legends. But the pumpkin hurled in Sleepy Hollow was whole and not carved.

In 1830, Nathanial Hawthorne used a carved pumpkin head in his short story Feathertop. In the story, a New England farmer bewitches a scarecrow. She uses a pumpkin for the scarecrow’s head and cuts holes for eyes and a slit for the mouth. Then, she places a hat with a rooster feather on top of the carved pumpkin head. By puffing on a tobacco pipe (another Native American crop), the scarecrow comes alive.

Newspapers increasingly depicted carved pumpkins as well. On November 23, 1867, an engraving appeared in Harper’s Weekly called “A Pumpkin Effigy.” The engraving depicts two men holding a large pumpkin. Light shines through the pumpkin’s spooky, carved-out face.

By the 1890s, most Americans saw more pumpkins in stories, prints, and poems than in the fields. They also used pumpkins as festive decorations for the increasingly popular fall holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Of course, President Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official national holiday in 1863 during the Civil War. Halloween took a little longer.

Irish-Americans brought over All Hallows Eve from the ancient Celtic calendar. It’s the halfway point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. This was a time when the souls of the dead were said to walk the earth, as the veil between the spirit and living worlds was at its thinnest.

As time went on, Halloween became a time for children to engage in fall festivities, such as apple bobbing, hay rides and dressing up in costumes. And rural harvest decorations, such as pumpkins, became logical backdrops.

Between the 1890s and the 1920s, the pumpkin became an old-fashioned, sentimental symbol of the autumn harvest in rural parts of the country. But most young American men and women wanted to leave the farm and field. They wanted a new cosmopolitan life. In fact, a popular song after WW I by Al Jolson asked, “How you gonna’ keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” The song referenced all the soldiers returning home from France after the war.

By the late 20th century, the old-fashioned pumpkin–and the local American farm– started to come back into favor. And today, American families head back to the farm to pick apples in September and pumpkins in October. This new tradition certainly gave a second life to many family farms. They now survive by catering to the recreational interests, rather than the nutritional needs, of the modern American family.

But let’s not forget the pumpkin is still a worthy food crop. And this fall, instead of using canned pumpkin, try steaming your own.

It’s much easier than you might think. And healthier too.

Simply cut the pumpkin in half. Remove the seeds, pulp, and stringy portion. Then, cut the meat into small pieces and peel. Place it in a steamer or metal colander that fits in a covered pot. Then, put it over boiling water, cover, and steam for about 50 minutes, or until tender. Next, purée the soft pumpkin in a blender or food processor. Or you can even mash it by hand with a food mill. You can use this fresh pumpkin in any recipe calling for pumpkin purée. Or you can or freeze and store your own pumpkin purée for Thanksgiving or Christmas.