The great Pumpkin
At this time of year, you can’t help but to think about pumpkins. It is a strange plant, with a huge fruit growing on a flimsy vine. Let’s take a look at this interesting plant.
The pumpkin is the oldest-known cultivated plant in the New World. Native peoples started growing pumpkins for food over 11,000 years ago. The evidence of this comes from caves in the Tamaulipas mountains in Mexico, where fossilized stems and seeds of pumpkins have been found, along with other discarded food stuffs around ancient ruins and fire rings.
Along with pumpkins, these ancient people also were the first to cultivate corn, chili peppers, squash, amaranth, sweet potato, potato, bottle gourds and so much more. Unlike many of these mentioned vegetables, the pumpkin has changed very little since it was first planted in primitive gardens.
Pumpkins, and their seeds, were traded all across the New World. By about three to four thousand years ago, the use of pumpkins had made it to the plains and woodland Indians of central North America.
Like many native foods, pumpkins where sent back to Europe by the early explorers as examples of how strange and exotic the New World was. In 1539, when Hernando de Soto visited Tampa Bay, he wrote back home to say “beans and pumpkins were in great plenty, both were larger and better than those of Spain. The pumpkins, when roasted, had nearly the state of chestnuts.” Of course, they didn’t actually have pumpkins in Spain at the time. Soto confused pumpkins with the more familiar squash, which was common in Spain.
Speaking of the taste of pumpkins, it was common practice by the time the Mayflower landed to bake pumpkins whole in the ashes of a fire, then cut open and serve the pumpkin flesh by moistening it with animal fat or maple syrup and honey. The earliest Pilgrims invented pumpkin pie. It was simply a variation of this baked pumpkin, but they would slice off the top and scrape out the seeds inside first. Then the cavity was filled with apples, sugar, spices and milk. The top was put back on, and the entire stuffed pumpkin was baked.
It was over 100 years later that the pumpkin pie as we know it appeared. Cook books in 1796 called for a pudding-like pumpkin filling, along with milk, eggs, molasses, all-spice and ginger be baked in a crust of flour and butter. The result was a tart that resembles our current pumpkin pie.
This year when you are picking out or carving your pumpkin, will you stop to ponder the great history behind the pumpkin? Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesart.com.