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Pumpkins have had a face in the history of the country

October 22, 2012
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Nothing conjures up autumn memories of our youth more than apples, brilliant leaf colors and pumpkins.

The pumpkin is my topic today and it is more than a pie or a porch decoration. I hope you enjoy our investigation of this member of the Cucurbita family.

Though they are often thought to be used solely as festive fall decorations, pumpkins are also nutritious and versatile fruit that can be found in many soups, stews and other hearty dishes.

When fresh pumpkins are not available or convenient, canned pumpkin can be an alternative.

References to pumpkins date back many centuries. The name pumpkin originated from the Greek word for “large melon” which is “pepon.” “Pepon” was nasalized by the French into “pompon.” The English changed “pompon” to “Pumpion.”

Shakespeare referred to the “pumpion” in his “Merry Wives of Windsor.” American colonists changed “pumpion” to “pumpkin.” The “pumpkin” is referred to in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” and “Cinderella.”

Native Americans dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats. They also roasted long strips of pumpkin on the open fire and ate them.

The origin of pumpkin pie occurred when the colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds and filled the insides with milk, spices and honey. The pumpkin was then baked in hot ashes.

Pumpkins are grown primarily for processing with a small percentage grown for ornamental sales through you-pick farms, farmers market and retail sales.

Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California are the leading pumpkin producing states. Total U.S. pumpkin production in major pumpkin producing states is estimated at 1.1 billion pounds and is valued at more than $150 million.

The bright orange color of pumpkin is a dead giveaway that pumpkin is loaded with an important antioxidant, beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is one of the plant carotenoids converted to vitamin A in the body. In the conversion to vitamin A, beta carotene performs many important functions in overall health.

Current research indicates that a diet rich in foods containing beta-carotene may reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer and offers protection against heart disease. Beta-carotene offers protection against other diseases, as well as some degenerative aspects of aging.

Freezing is the easiest way to preserve pumpkin, and it yields the best quality product. Select full-colored mature pumpkins with fine texture (not stringy or dry). Wash, cut into cooking-size sections and remove seeds. Cook until soft in boiling water, in steam, in a pressure cooker, or in an oven. Remove pulp from rind and mash. To cool, place pan containing pumpkin in cold water and stir occasionally. Pack into rigid containers leaving headspace and freeze.

So as you can see pumpkin is so much more than a Jack-O-Lantern. Enjoy this wonderful fall weather.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at jsemler@umd.edu.

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