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The Incredible, Edible Pumpkin

So many foods have become synonymous with the holiday of Thanksgiving. Some of them – like turkey – we know for certain probably weren’t part of the menu at the very first Thanksgiving meal, but it’s likely that some of these popular holiday foods – like pumpkin – were indeed found on that table 300+ years ago.

Taken from the Greek word “pepon”, which means large melon, and known to the early English people as pompion, the pumpkin was believed to have been a Native American staple and a regular part of their diet. Native Americans in the New World used every part of the pumpkin, eating the sweet, rich meat inside while using strips of the tough exterior to make mats and other items they used every day.

Food historians note that pumpkin quickly became a part of the Colonists’ diet as well and soon a traditional Thanksgiving food. Pumpkin pie, it is said, was invented when the colonists removed the top of the pumpkin, scooped out the seeds, and filled the inside with honey, milk, and spices. The mixture was then baked over hot ashes and the result was simply delicious. Later, pumpkin was used for the crust of pies, not the delicious filling.

Even the jack-o-lantern tradition is centuries old. It all began with an Irish myth about a dead soul that roamed the earth with just a lantern, not allowed to enter either Heaven or Hell. Soon, people began making representations of Old Jack from potatoes and turnips. When Irish immigrants came to the America, they decided to use pumpkins for this age old tradition because the carving surfaces were larger. And once they had gutted the pumpkin for carving, they found plenty of creative uses for the insides as well!

Pumpkin Facts

Like many orange-colored foods, the pumpkin is very rich in beta-carotene, which is a recognized anti-oxidant. A diet rich in anti-oxidants is believed to lower an individual’s risk of developing heart disease and certain types of cancer.

Naturally low in fat, a cup of cooked pumpkin contains about 50 calories and 3 grams of dietary fiber. It’s also rich in calcium and potassium and provides trace amounts of iron, magnesium, vitamin E, niacin, folate, and selenium.

The top pumpkin producing-states in the U.S. are Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, and Ohio. Most of the pumpkins grown in those and other states are used for processing with just a small percentage being sold on the retail market for eating or decorative purposes. The variety most often purchased in the U.S. is called the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, though there are literally dozens of varieties available.

Contrary to what some people may think, the pumpkin is a fruit, not a vegetable even though the Colonists and Native Americans referred to it as akin to a squash.

Preparing and Cooking the Pumpkin

If you’ve purchased a pumpkin for both eating and decorating, you’ll start the process by cutting a “lid” and scooping out all the seeds and stringy stuff. You’ll be left with the solid pumpkin meat. If you are trying to preserve the pumpkin, this is sometimes hard to remove but an ice cream scoop often works well. If you’re not going to carve the pumpkin, you can smash it against a table in order to remove what’s inside.

If you’re hoping to make puree for pies and other baked goods, you’ll need to cook the pumpkin first. A good way to do this is by boiling/steaming it. Cut the pumpkin meat into large chunks and place them in a pot with about a cup of water. Put the lid on and boil it for about 30 minutes or steam it for 20. Check for doneness with a fork. You can also bake it on a cookie sheet for about an hour at 350 degrees.

When it’s cooked and cooled, simply puree it in a food processor or food mill. Refrigerate the puree and use it within 48 hours. You can also freeze it in pre-determined quantities (1 cup, 2 cups) in plastic freezer-proof containers for later use.