Pumpkin Pie

Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? / Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

–Lydia Maria Child, “Over the River and Through the Wood”

We continue a tradition of exploring plants and animals associated with Thanksgiving, after investigating wild turkeyscranberry sauce, and maize. Though cranberry sauce contains some sweetness, most people do not consume it as a dessert, meaning we’ve so far omitted the best part of a feast. We shortchange the indulgence course no longer; let’s learn about pumpkins and their delicious pies.

In English, what we call pumpkins are actually cultivars of winter squash. Typically, we think of pumpkins as round and orange, but they can grow in a variety of shapes and colors. Pumpkins fall into the grey zone when it comes to the tricky question: fruit or vegetable? They’re in saccharine foods and drinks, such as pies, cookies, and lattes* (see below), but their flesh isn’t exactly sweet like most fruits. Squashes definitely look more like vegetables, though, and can function as ingredients in savory entrees.

However, to a botanist, pumpkins are berries, which means they are fruits.

Giant orange berries - photo by Infrogmation
A few pumpkin cultivars - photo by Grey Geezer

Pumpkins are one of the oldest known domesticated plants. Evidence exists in Mexico, dating the farming of a species of winter squash – Cucurbita pepo – to between 7,000 BCE and 5,500 BCE. Indigenous North Americans readily utilized squashes as one of the three main food crops, along with maize and climbing beans. Most of the types of gourds we label as pumpkins are native to North America, some more domesticated than others.

The word pumpkin displays a curious, if uncertain, etymology. The widely held theory involves a string of corruptions across multiple languages. The romanized version of the Greek word for “melon” is pepōn. This term became the Latin peponem, which morphed into the French word pompon. The English then had a turn, producing pompion or pumpion (see The Merry Wives of Windsor). When English colonists arrived in North America, they encountered the squashes and soon cranked out new jargon: pumpkin. The competing notion revolves around a word from the Massachusett language used by the Wampanoag, pôhpukun, which means “grows forth round.” Considering not all squashes present as round, the colonists could have transmuted this word to pumpkin.

Usually planted in late summer, pumpkins arrive in September or October, making them the perfect plant for all sorts of autumn and winter holidays. With each passing year, they become more and more entrenched with Halloween, though the origin of the jack-o’-lantern is far from modern. The typical carving pumpkin is not the same as those used for cooking. One of the most common cultivars used for decorations is the Connecticut field pumpkin, which displays the attributes of any good jack-o’-lantern.

A Connecticut field pumpkin - photo by Halfgig

When pumpkins aren’t on the shoulders of headless horsemen, serving as carriages for Cinderellas, or being chunked from contraptions, humans are busy eating them.

Most portions of the pumpkin are edible, even the tough shell. For thousands of years, people have roasted the seeds and the softer, inner flesh for consumption. Some populations even eat the flowers and the leaves, while the oil can be used for cooking.

Of course, the most popular dish is the Thanksgiving staple of pumpkin pie, though Starbucks is giving the traditional fare a run with the pumpkin spice latte. The coffee concoction doesn’t actually include pumpkin but gains its name from the spice used in the modern pie recipe. Pumpkin pie spice mixes cinnamon, powdered ginger, nutmeg, and cloves for the signature flavor. In addition to the spice, the traditional pie recipe contains eggs, condensed milk, sugar, and certain cultivars of pumpkin used in cooking. And, of course, whipped cream. The largest producer of canned pumpkin in the United States – Libby’s, which raises pumpkins in Illinois – uses a variety called the Dickinson pumpkin that you won’t see on many Halloween doorsteps.

Dickinson pumpkins - photo by Jim Meadows/Harvest Public Media

Early pumpkin “pies” bore little resemblance to the modern gem.

In colonial America, the first pumpkin pies were akin more to soup than desserts. They would slice off the top of a pumpkin, and toss in milk, honey, and spices, before throwing in on some hot coals. The result was something like a pudding. 

The gourds made their way from North America to Europe by the 17th century, when gastronomists began tossing them into pies. Recipes with crusts emerged in 1650 and 1675; a formula for making a pie we might recognize appears in American Cookery from 1796. 

After the United States Civil War, Americans in the South attempted to resist the delicious nature of pumpkin pie, branding it as a Yankee custom. Instead of partaking, they developed the sweet potato pie, which has a similar taste. Some added pecans to pumpkin pie to differentiate them from the northern versions.

The delectable custard glory of the pumpkin pie - photo by Evan-Amos

Growing giant pumpkins is a rising pastime among gardeners and farmers. In October 2023, a world record pumpkin hit scales, measuring 2,749 pounds! That could make a lot of pies. Or one giant pie. The current record for the largest pie was set in New Bremen, Ohio, in 2010. It contained 1,212 pounds of canned pumpkin, 109 gallons of evaporated milk, 2,796 eggs, seven pounds of salt, 14.5 pounds of cinnamon, and 525 pounds of sugar. The pie clocked in at 3,699 pounds cooked, with a diameter of 20 feet!

If you don’t partake of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, I pity your lack. If you enjoy good food, indulge heartily, knowing you continue a tradition of humanity stretching back nearly 10,000 years. Tell yourself that the calories are well worth the high content of Vitamin A that pumpkins provide.

World record pumpkin pie - photo from Pumpkin Nook
A slice of heaven - photo by medea_material

Further Reading and Exploration

A Brief History of Pumpkin Pie – The Bunnery Bakery & Restaurant

Pumpkin History – University of Illinois

How Ancient Humans Helped Bring Pumpkins to Your Thanksgiving Table – Smithsonian Magazine

For Decades, Southern States Considered Thanksgiving an Act of Northern Aggression – Gastro Obscura

Canned Pumpkins Aren’t Grown For Their Looks – High Plains Public Radio

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