It's October, and that means pumpkin time.
Whether with sinister faces outside on the porch or pureed in the home oven – pumpkins simply belong to October. But what seems so natural to us today required meticulous scheduling over many generations, elaborate manual labor, and above all, a whole bunch of coincidences.
But why is the pumpkin synonymous with autumn in general and October in particular? Why go through the trouble of carving spooky faces into its thick skin? And why is there a world record in pumpkin boat rowing?
Come with us on an exciting journey in the footsteps of the probably world's largest berry, from its endangered roots to its current triumph all around (almost) the whole world. And in the end, a little refreshment awaits as well.
The Pumpkin = the Berry in Zucchini Skin?
Pumpkins were first scientifically described in the year 1584 by French explorer Jacques Cartier during an expedition through America. Although the Frenchman initially had no idea what kind of fruit it was, surprisingly, he still managed to give the pumpkin a very fitting name: "Gros Melons."
Because pumpkins indeed belong to the family Cucurbitaceae, which in fact owes its German name "Kürbisgewächse" (pumpkin plants) to this relatively recently discovered member, along with cucumbers, zucchinis, and also melons. The latter had long been known in Europe, as they were cultivated in antiquity in North Africa and Southern Europe, such as Greece.
We owe many aspects of our current name to the modern Greeks, as they literally translated Cartier's "Gros Melons" to the Greek "Pepon." From there, the fruit entered the English language initially as "Pompion."
The present-day English word "Pumpkin" was actually mentioned for the first time in a version of a source now globally known through Disney and the Brothers Grimm: Cinderella, even though this story hardly has anything to do with its ancient Greek origins, which had no trace of stepmothers, fairy godmothers, or pumpkins.
In fact, pumpkins are not only related to melons & Co., but as the observant reader might have noticed, they are not vegetables but fruits. Botanically speaking, pumpkins are not only fruits but quite specifically a form of berries. This might sound surprising, but just like with berries, only a single fruit grows from each pumpkin flower. Of course, this definition applies not only to pumpkins; other presumed vegetables are, strictly speaking, actually berries as well, such as tomatoes, eggplants, and of course, melons & Co.
By the way, this also means that in reverse, our beloved strawberries and raspberries are not technically berries.
Pumpkin Varieties - From Bees and Blooms
Even though pumpkins have been known in Europe for several hundred years, their history stretches far back. The plant's origin lies in Central America, where there is evidence of active pumpkin cultivation dating back to 7,000 BC.
In fact, without this active cultivation by humans, the fruit would likely have gone extinct thousands of years ago, as it possesses a set of characteristics that make it unsuitable for independent survival in the environmental conditions that prevail in its native region nowadays. This would have likely prevented the pumpkin from embarking on its worldwide conquest as it has done today.
Like many other plants, pumpkins are not self-pollinators and require other species such as insects or birds to carry pollen from one plant to another for reproduction. In their native region, there was a specially adapted type of bee known as squash bees to fulfill this role. While honeybees can also play this role nowadays, these species (as readers of our Apple Blog already know) are not native to America and only arrived with European settlers in the New World. In North America, until the arrival of honeybees, the only alternative to squash bees were the few native bumblebee species. However, bumblebees, although they love the nectar of pumpkin flowers, are known to actively avoid their pollen. There have even been documented cases of bumblebees coming into contact with pumpkin pollen and actively rubbing it off on leaves before flying off. There are good reasons for this. Pumpkin pollen is relatively large and heavy, often too heavy for smaller bumblebee species, and can cause damage to the digestive tract of bumblebees. So, bumblebees and pumpkins don't go well together. In places without their own populations, even today, diligent humans still have to hand-pollinate each pumpkin flower individually instead of the diligent bees.
In addition to pollen, pumpkins also have another size-related problem. Even though original pumpkins are far from reaching the size of the cultivated monsters today (more on that later), pumpkins are relatively large fruits with a very tough shell. The reason for this lies in their development in Central America, together with the local megafauna. They were a treat for truly large mammals like mammoths. These large mammals would eat the fruits, digest them during their long feeding migrations, and deposit the remains, along with up to 500 undigested seeds per pumpkin, elsewhere, just like birds do with most, albeit significantly smaller berries here. With the extinction of megafauna at the end of the last ice age, the fruits simply became too large or too hard to be attractive to the now smaller herbivores. This left the pumpkin with only one real chance of survival: the diligent human, who fortunately managed to make it to America during the ice age via the Bering land bridge.
Fortunately, the pumpkin no longer needs to worry today. Humans have gradually taken it to almost every corner of the world, and nowadays, the fruit is cultivated on every continent, except Antarctica. Over the centuries, due to various consumer preferences and different climatic conditions, the original 5 basic types have now evolved into more than 70 different variations, each with its own size, shape, and color.
Some of these forms are globally known, such as the blue "Kabocha" or Hokkaido pumpkin from Japan, the appropriately named "White Ghost" (Spooky alert), or the "Cinderella," named after the pumpkin from the world-famous Disney movie of the same name, due to its slightly squat appearance. However, as often is the case, not everything labeled as pumpkin really contains pumpkin. The well-known snake gourd, for example, is technically not a pumpkin at all and rightfully carries the much more fitting though less attractive secondary name, club-shaped zucchini.
On the other hand, other variations are rather quirky and unique, like the "Pumpkinstein," a pumpkin in the iconic shape of the head of Frankenstein's monster, as known from the classic 1931 film starring Boris Karloff as the reanimated creature. Breeding this masterpiece required the methodical crossing of a total of 27 different pumpkin varieties over countless attempts spanning 4 years. The costs for this endeavor are allegedly estimated at over $400,000.
Pumpkin Pie – Baked Pumpkin
It's often said that Apple Pie is the undisputed soul food of Americans. However, this podium spot isn't entirely uncontested. While a significant 19% of Americans still claim that they prefer their pie with apples, the Pumpkin Pie takes second place with a substantial 13%. Of course, we're talking about the modern version of Pumpkin Pie with delicious pumpkin puree in the typical American pie crust. However, Americans didn't always enjoy their pumpkin pie this way. The oldest documented recipes from the colonial period seem quite peculiar in light of our current understanding of pie. In the beginning, Pumpkin Pie was actually more pumpkin than pie – a hollowed-out pumpkin filled with milk, honey, and a mixture of spices, then baked. The modern version of Pumpkin Pie actually appeared in American cookbooks only in the 19th century, after the country gained independence from British colonial rule.
Unlike the somewhat symbolically patriotic apple pie, Pumpkin Pie is indeed a truly American original recipe and not an adaptation of centuries-old European culinary art, as is the case with apple pie.
For those who want to try the alternative to the classic apple pie, we have everything important right here in our webshop:
- Pumpkin Pie Filling by Farmers Market
- Canned Pumpkin by Farmers Market
- Pumpkin Pie Spice by American Heritage
- Gluten-Free Pie Crust Mix by Cup4Cup
- Deep Glass Pie Dish by Anchor Hocking
For the gourmet or the hobby baker, it's important to note that pumpkins themselves have a relatively mild and subtle flavor. To achieve the typical Pumpkin Pie taste, their natural flavors must be enhanced by adding spices, just as the early settlers did with their milk-honey mixture before putting the pumpkin in the oven. The traditional spice blend typically consists of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves, sometimes further refined with hints of ginger and allspice.
By the way, you don't need to worry about this with our Farmer's Market pie filling: all the essential spices are already included. And for those who prefer to puree it themselves, we have the spice blend conveniently available as Pumpkin Pie Spice by American Heritage in a jar for direct mixing without the need for extensive measuring.
However, the American history of the pumpkin dates back even further than the time of the first settlers. While it's not completely documented when it made its way from its origins in Central America to the northern part of the continent, the Native Americans were familiar with the fruit and cultivated it on a small scale as one of their staple foods along with beans and corn. According to legend, pumpkin was also one of the dishes served at the first Thanksgiving, and the settlers learned the necessary practices for cultivating and harvesting this labor-intensive fruit from the Native Americans. The use of pumpkins by Native Americans extended beyond the dining table as well. They used the hollowed-out shells as improvised containers for storing other foods, and they wove mats and similar textiles from dried, cut pumpkin shells.
Today, the USA is undoubtedly the pumpkin country par excellence, even though pumpkins have now made their way into kitchens around the globe. The pumpkin capital is clearly Morton, Illinois, the headquarters of Libby's Pumpkin Industries. Morton produces 95% of the entire 750,000 tons of pumpkins grown in the USA each year and processes them into a whopping 80% of the globally produced canned pumpkins.
And behind these already astronomical quantities lies a whole lot of work and precise timing. Depending on the type and size, pumpkins need 90 to 120 days from pollination to final harvest. As 80% of the fruits ripen and need to be harvested in October, the pumpkin farmers' season usually begins in spring. Fortunately, honeybees now help with pollination, but often hand assistance is still required to ensure a bountiful harvest. And in fact, even more haste is required in this process, as the female flowers of pumpkins are fertile for only one day each year, and even then, for a narrow window of just 4 hours!
Who would have thought that plants that would hardly survive without our help could be so selective?
By the way, the world's largest pumpkin comes from... Germany, or at least we'd like to say so. Unfortunately, the record of 2,600 pounds held in Germany was broken by Belgian Mathias Willemjins in 2016, with an even slightly heavier specimen weighing in at 2,624.60 pounds or 1,190.50 kg.
The largest pumpkin pie ever produced weighed a whopping 3,699 pounds (1,678 kg) and had a diameter of 6 meters. This colossal creation contained a whopping 550 kg of pureed pumpkin.
Squash & Co. - Surprisingly Sporty Squashes
But pumpkins are good for so much more than being pureed and sealed in cans or being placed on porches with menacing faces. In fact, the rather sluggish-looking fruit seems to have a great affinity for sports.
In Delaware, the annual event called "Pumpkin Chunkin" took place – a competition in pumpkin throwing, although the term "throwing" must be interpreted quite liberally here. In reality, the pumpkins weren't launched into the air by hand but with catapults, slingshots, or even air cannons. However, it eventually became clear to the organizers that launching often heavy pumpkins as projectiles at high speeds might not be the safest activity, and the event was officially abandoned in 2017.
The Canadians have their own equally quirky pumpkin sport, although it's not as menacing as that of their southern neighbors. In Nova Scotia, the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta is held every year – a race in which participants paddle converted hollowed-out giant pumpkins as boats over a distance of 800 meters, all while trying to avoid spinning in circles. The competition has been held every year since 1999 and has even attracted international participants. The world record for the fastest short-distance sprint in pumpkin boat paddling has been held since 2013, with a time of 2 minutes and 0.3 seconds over a distance of 100 meters.
Perhaps the strangest sports event in North America is the annual Naked Pumpkin Run, held in various U.S. states such as Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and California. As the name suggests, participants run almost completely naked, wearing only shoes and a mask made from a hollowed-out pumpkin, along a designated course often filled with obstacles for the amusement of onlookers. This peculiar spectacle traces back to a failed world record attempt at the University of Boulder in Colorado in 1974.
Less quirky but historically significant, it should be mentioned that pumpkins even played a role in the Olympic Games. In the late 19th century, unlike today's secure pools and indoor swimming, open ocean swimming was part of the Olympic program. Participants were taken out to a certain distance by boats and then swam back to the shore in a race. While it's not known whether cost played a role, hollowed-out pumpkins linked together with ropes were used as lane markers for swimming at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens.
Halloween Pumpkin - Why the Scary Face?
Now that we've referred to Halloween and the well-known jack-o'-lanterns so many times, it's time to ask: What's the purpose of all of this?
Although Halloween is now known as a typical American tradition, its roots go far back in time. The exact origin of the festival that inspired the modern night of spooky activities isn't entirely clear, but there are a few good candidates.
The most likely root of modern Halloween lies in Christian tradition and the festival of Allhallowtide, a time to remember the dead – primarily the saints and martyrs. Another alternative, and the most frequently cited, is the Celtic festival of "Samhain," an ancient version of the end-of-harvest festival and the beginning of the darker and colder half of the year, practiced mainly in ancient Britain.
Hollowed-out pumpkins weren't a part of these traditions – not surprising, as there were no pumpkins in Europe at that time. The tradition of carving spooky faces, however, did exist back then, with the aim of warding off evil spirits that were believed to roam the world of humans as darkness increased. Instead of using pumpkins, these faces were carved into the available alternatives of the time, such as potatoes or turnips. However, as these were much harder to carve than the soft interior of pumpkins, this tradition was largely replaced by the modern version after transitioning to the USA. The use of food items for crafting lanterns is rooted in the folk legend of "Stingy Jack." The story goes as follows:
Several hundred years ago, in Ireland, there lived a ne'er-do-well and drinker named "Stingy Jack," known far and wide as a trickster and cheat. One night, news reached Jack that the Devil was jealous because Jack was being hailed as the ultimate trickster instead of him. The Devil subsequently came to Jack to claim his wicked soul. Jack simply asked the Devil for one last drink before he was taken to hell, a request the Devil reluctantly granted, accompanying Jack to the nearest tavern.
After drinking to his heart's content, Jack turned to the Devil and asked him to pay the bill, since he had agreed to Jack's request. However, the Devil was caught off guard as he had no money, but Jack had a solution. He suggested that the Devil should simply transform himself into a silver coin, and after paying the bill, he could turn back to his normal form. The Devil was impressed by Jack's trickery and promptly transformed into the coin. But instead of paying, Jack pocketed the coin along with his jacket, where he also kept a crucifix that prevented the Devil from changing his form. Now fully in control, Jack offered the Devil his freedom in exchange for a promise that the Devil would never claim his soul and take him to hell. The Devil reluctantly agreed.
With his life as a drunkard, it didn't take long for Jack to meet his end. But when he arrived at the gates of Heaven, Saint Peter denied him entry due to his sinful lifestyle. Jack then sought entry into Hell, but the Devil, keeping his word, also denied him access. Jack was thus doomed to roam the world as a restless spirit for eternity. As if to mock him, the Devil gave him a single spark, captured to protect it from wind and weather, inside a hollowed-out turnip. This is the origin of the tradition of fruit lanterns.
The legend and the carving tradition eventually came to the New World with Irish immigrants, leading to the establishment of the modern pumpkin lantern, known as the "Jack-o'-Lantern." Since then, pumpkin carving has almost become its own sport, with numerous world records, such as the most carved pumpkins in an hour (109) and the fastest pumpkin carving time (16.47 seconds).
Why not give it a try yourself? And for those who need to wash their hands after the work is done, we recommend the new Pumpkin Harvest Hand Soap with a delightful pumpkin scent from Stonewall Kitchen:
By the way: Theoretically, after its one-night display, you can actually eat your Halloween pumpkin since, as mentioned earlier, every part of the plant is edible. However, carving pumpkins are often different varieties than the sugar pumpkins used for cooking, which are smaller and much sweeter in taste than their larger, bland counterparts.
Have a Drink – Pumpkin Pie Latte
What could be better than a delicious refreshment to finish off, such as a wonderful Pumpkin Pie Latte made with the tasty syrup from Sonoma Syrups?
And who came up with this idea?
Actually, Starbucks. The drink became so popular that it even got the company into some legal trouble. Initially, despite the name, the latte didn't actually contain any pumpkin and only had the pumpkin spice mixture typically used to enhance the flavor of cakes and other treats. After complaints about this misleading marketing, Starbucks had to modify the recipe. Since then, the Pumpkin Spice Latte does indeed contain pumpkin puree.
So, raise your cups and enjoy October. Halloween is definitely on its way.