For centuries, pumpkins served as a nutritious, easy-to-grow fall crop that would carry Native Americans and later English colonists through the hardships of winter. Yet, over time, people stopped growing and cooking them and instead began decorating with them.
So, today, let’s discuss why the humble pumpkin should still hold a place in your fall cooking…
Long history as a nutritious, sustaining food crop
Native Americans typically planted pumpkins (or squash)—together with beans and corn—as part of their ingenious, three-crop farming system called, “The Three Sisters.” Of course, English colonists learned about this system from the Native Americans. And since pumpkins are among the last crops harvested in the fall, they helped sustain the newcomers through the long, harsh winters in the New World.
In fact, people in rugged, rural New England often made a one-pot meal called succotash, which featured boiled beans, corn, and pompions (or pumpkins). They also made pumpkin ale and beer!
Colonists would also prepare sweet pumpkin dishes—with spices like allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. (The spices came through the “China trade” to ports like Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, Newburyport, New York, and Salem. I’ll be talking about them in more detail in an upcoming Insiders’ Cures newsletter. So if you’re not yet a subscriber, become one today!)
They would often add molasses and rum, less expensive byproducts of sugar, to these sweet dishes—which came from the Caribbean in the “triangle trade.”
Over time, pumpkin farming in the colonies became a point of pride, productivity, and self-sufficiency. And by 1776, the pumpkin and pumpkin farming became meaningful emblems of American identity and independence.
In fact, Thomas Jefferson grew pumpkins and squash on his estate in Virginia. And they embodied his ideal of an “agrarian democracy” of self-sufficient, land-holding farmers in the new nation.
Of course, in the South, people grew different cash crops—such as cotton, rice, 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 regard the pumpkin more as a historic symbol of American self-dependence…rather than as an actual food crop. Indeed, Henry David Thoreau, in the mid-1800s, famously wrote, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”
The pumpkin becomes spooky
At about the same time, people in the U.S. began to associate pumpkins with spooky tall tales. In fact, in 1820, Washington Irving wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He described a ghost that hurls a pumpkin in the dark woods at night.
Of course, ancient legends from around the world influenced Irving’s tale…
Irish legends told of the jack-o’-lantern—a trickster forced to wander between heaven and hell. And in African-American legends, the trickster is called 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.
In 1830, Nathanial Hawthorne depicted 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 began depicting carved pumpkins as well. In fact, on November 23, 1867, an engraving appeared in Harper’s Weekly called, “A Pumpkin Effigy.” It depicted two men holding a large pumpkin—with light shining through the pumpkin’s spooky, carved-out face.
Pumpkins used more as décor than as a food crop
By the 1900s, most Americans saw more pumpkins in stories, prints, and poems than they did in their fields. They also began using pumpkins as festive decorations for the increasingly popular fall holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving. (President Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official national holiday in 1863 during the Civil War. But Halloween took a while longer.)
Irish-Americans brought the concept of All Hallows Eve over with them with the ancient Celtic calendar. This day is the halfway point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. It’s said to be a time when the veil between the spirit and living worlds is at its thinnest and when the souls of the dead walk the Earth. (I’ll talk more about this date on the Celtic calendar in tomorrow’s Dispatch!)
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.
But by the early 1920s, most young American men and women wanted to leave the farm and field in favor of life in the big city. 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.
Thankfully, by the late-20th century, the small, family-owned farm started to make a come-back in the U.S. And even during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems that apple-picking in September and pumpkin-hunting in October are still safe, fall pastimes for families.
Of course, this renewed interest in seeking authentic, traditional experiences has certainly given a second life to many family farms—which now survive by catering to the recreational interests and the nutritional needs of the modern American family.
In fact, my daughter and her husband responded to the coronavirus crisis by expanding
their organic egg and produce business to include organic, homemade soaps and gluten-free desserts. They also started a farm co-op on weekends to host others who sell homemade masks, organic baked goods, produce, and arts and crafts.
So, this weekend, if you are in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area, or passing through, please consider stopping by for a pumpkin and other fall treats. Click here for more details, directions, and updates.
And, if you happen to pick up a pumpkin, try cooking it up at home—as the Native Americans and English colonists did—for a healthy, nutritious, fall treat. It’s much easier than you might think.
Simply cut the pumpkin in half. Remove the seeds, pulp, and stringy portion. Then, cut the flesh 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, cut up the flesh and add it to a pot with steamed lima beans and corn to make New England succotash. You can also purée the soft pumpkin in a blender or food processor. (Or you can even mash it by hand.)
You can then use this fresh pumpkin in any recipe calling for pumpkin purée. And if you have some leftover, simply freeze it and store it for Thanksgiving and Christmas!