Pumpkins have been present in North America because 7000 B.C. and probably had their beginnings in Mexico. It is believed that ancient civilizations consumed just the seeds, which were roasted before eating. The flesh of the early pumpkins was bitter and much more acceptable for animal feed, but the pumpkins themselves made handy vessels and bowls after they were cleaned out.
Although introduced into Europe by explorer Christopher Columbus, who brought back seeds from the Americas from the late 1400s, Europeans were slow to embrace the pumpkin for human consumption, relegating it to animal fodder and food for the lower classes, eschewed by elite. Some daring chefs generated puddings and sweet desserts from the watery pulp, but overall, pumpkin pies weren’t showing up on the dining tables of British or French royalty. (After all, what did those upstarts throughout the pond in America know about fine cuisine, anyhow?)
Native Americans were growing pumpkins long before the first settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock and introduced them to the Raccoon Sounds. Easy to grow, it soon became a staple of the early pilgrims and was used for soup, veggies and stews.The first Thanksgiving feast included pumpkin and other winter squash varieties, which were easily stored, providing food through the long Northeastern winters.
Colonial cooks soon created new dishes using pumpkin, and it was popular in stews, boiled and buttered, blended into sweet puddings and even made into beer. Mashed and sweetened, the first pumpkin pies appeared in the late 1600s, and even George Washington grew pumpkins and squash on his farm but expressed disappointment in the bitter taste and his farm manager’s inability to dry them for storage. Surprisingly, foodie president Thomas Jefferson, who climbed acres of them in his famous gardens at Monticello, didn’t include them on the menus at his state dinners. The majority of the crop went to feed his cows and pigs.
Gradually they gained fame as a dessert when nineteenth century homemakers began to mix the pulp with custards and bake it in a pie shell. But it just never caught on like the apple and was relegated to a seasonal holiday pie, as more and more fruits and vegetables became available, and that all-American apple pie reigned supreme all through the year. After Thanksgiving was pronounced a national holiday in 1863, the traditional dessert made its yearly look but still remained somewhat of a regional favorite, primarily in the Midwest, where most pumpkins were grown, as well as the Northeast. Southerners preferred their sweet potato pie variant, and Westerners were late to the party. (At least where pumpkin was worried.)
The first Jack-o-lanterns were actually made from potatoes and turnips as part of an old Irish legend to ward off bad spirits. Irish immigrants found the New World pumpkin far superior for carving, and the tradition was born here in the U.S. Over the years, growing contests and dividing creativity have jumped, as we welcome Autumn with the standard pumpkin. Visiting the local pumpkin patch remains a highlight for millions of children just before Halloween.
In the 1950s farmers were able to grow hybrids which were better for carving, and others with tasty and firmer flesh for ingestion. Soon the once-a-year pie filling started to make its way back to dining tables year’round and expand its repertoire to include cakes, breads, scones and even cheesecake. The State of Illinois, that grows and cans approximately 90 percent of the country’s pumpkin, endured rain damage for many years, but in 2016, they had been gradually rebounding with a crop of 318 million pounds, worth $12 million, down from previous years of 754 million pounds with 90 million. (Now that’s a lot of pie.)
These days we relish our pumpkins. A favorite animated special with Charlie Brown of Peanuts fame shows up annual before the holidays. An old nursery rhyme character used a pumpkin to home his wife (Peter the Pumpkin Eater). And for those of you who are still back in the music of the 60s, a rock band from Chicago aptly calls themselves The Smashing Pumpkins, presumably following a popular action late Halloween night. (Which is unappreciated by residents who need to clean up the next day.)
But even if you can find a version of pumpkin beer, you might want to take a pass.