The pumpkin is most well known for its links with Halloween, particularly in the USA; however, most people know little more about pumpkins other than their use at Halloween and the unmistakable bright orange color of a pumpkin. Is the pumpkin a fruit or a vegetable? What other uses does the pumpkin have, in addition to its Halloween associations?
Botanical Profile of the Pumpkin
The pumpkin is a member of the Cucurbitaceae plant family and is, in fact, a fruit; the pumpkin is botanically related to the melon, squash, cucumber and gherkin. Pumpkins are orange or yellow in color, with occasional color variations of green, white and red. Pumpkins average in weight from nine to eighteen pounds, although there have been some record breaking pumpkins; the largest pumpkin recorded was 1,689 pounds.
The History of the Pumpkin
Pumpkins are believed to be a native of North America; the English name pumpkin is said to have gone through various translations. The pumpkin has been referenced for thousands of years and it is thought that the origin of pumpkin is defined from the Greek word pepon meaning large melon. This in turn was translated by the French, the English and finally North American immigrants to pumpkin.
The Pumpkin’s Association with Halloween
The celebration of Halloween is thought to be a Celtic celebration dating back thousands of years; celebrated on October 31st each year, jack-o-lanterns were originally carved from turnips, potatoes and other vegetables and placed in the windows of homes in Britain and Ireland to both welcome deceased family (much like the Mexican day of the dead celebrations) and to scare away evil spirits.
The Legend of the Jack-o-Lantern
The legend of the jack-o-lantern originated in Ireland; Stingy Jack, having double crossed the devil and unable to get into heaven, was, on his death, given a burning coal by the devil for light. Stingy Jack carried the coal in a carved out turnip and has since been wandering the world; people made jack-o-Lanterns to scare away both evil spirits and to keep Stingy Jack from their doors.
The tradition was taken to North America through European immigrants who quickly saw that the pumpkin made an excellent jack-o-lantern. However, there is little documentation verifying both the jack-o-lantern legend and the use of jack-o-lanterns in Celtic celebrations, making the true origins of the jack-o-lantern uncertain.
The Use of Pumpkins in Cooking
Aside from Halloween celebrations, the pumpkin is often used in many culinary dishes. The various parts of a pumpkin are nutritional in value; pumpkin seeds are high in minerals and vitamins and are often eaten as a snack. Pumpkin seeds also produce a pumpkin seed oil which is used in cooking or as a salad dressing.
The pumpkin is popular in many North American culinary dishes (particularly at Halloween and Thanksgiving); the pumpkin can be used in various ways in culinary dishes:
- baked (popular in pumpkin pie)
- in both savory and sweet dishes
- as a beverage flavoring.
Pumpkins for Halloween
Today, pumpkins are commonly carved out at Halloween to create jack-o-lanterns. On October 31st, many homes are lit with pumpkin jack-o-lanterns and pumpkins are available in stores and farmer’s markets; however, the pumpkin is of great nutritional value too and can be eaten in many culinary dishes, not just in North America, but throughout the world.