The Orange Wonder-The tale of the Pumpkin.

My love affair with Pumpkins began when I was about ten years old.The passion for pumpkins was not however spontaneous,it was out of compulsion.The compulsion was rather funny.Constant headaches and inability to see the blackboard at class made my mother to take me to an eye specialist.By the end of the visit I was rewarded with a spectacle and my protests against the spectacles led the doctor to suggest that if I would have boiled carrots and pumpkins for the next year everyday I might not need the spectacle.Not a day went after that for the next two years that I did not have carrots and pumpkins and till date at mid 40’s I do not use spectacles. Boiled and mashed pumpkin with a dash of mustard oil or a blob of butter on steaming rice with a green chili was my staple plate before I went to school.Still today when I am on my dieting sprees mashed pumpkin is my best pal.Love for pumpkins is also in my blood I suppose.Heard stories from my mother that my grandmother would never have her lunch without boiled pumpkins even if it meant going to the market and getting it and lunch getting delayed till late afternoon. So here is my little tribute to the gorgeous yet underrated vegetable which has been so important in my life.The orange colour of the vegetables spreads a cheer in the cart of the vegetable seller.It makes easy forays into the Indian as well as the international kitchen.

Etymologically the name pumpkin can be traced back to the the Greek word “pepon”which means large melon. “Pepon” was changed by the French to “pompon”. The English termed it as “pumpion” or “pompion”. American colonists are credited with spelling “pumpion” as “pumpkin”, the name by which this vegetable is known in modern times. Archaeological evidence suggest that pumpkins and winter squash were native to the Americas from the southwestern part of what is now the United States through Mexico and Central America and south into Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Pumpkins have been cultivated since about 3500 B.C. rivaling it with maize (corn) as one of the oldest known crops in the western hemisphere. Native Americans are said to have roasted long strips of pumpkin on an open fire and then consumed them. They also dried pumpkin strips and wove them into mats. Archaeologists working in Central America found remains of pumpkin rinds and seeds in human settlements dating back to 7,000BC . They also discovered the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico. The first pumpkins however had very little resemblance to the sweet, bright orange variety we are familiar with now. The original pumpkins were small and hard with a bitter flavor. Rather than using their nutritional and readily available seeds, pre-Columbian natives grew pumpkins for their flesh. They were among the first crops grown for human consumption in North America. Pumpkins proved ideal for storing during cold weather and in times of scarcity as well.But early modern Europeans didn’t see, grow, or taste pumpkins until they came into contact with the “new worlds” of the North, Central, and South Americas at the end of the fifteenth century.

When early modern Britons first encountered the Cucurbita pepo, they named it “pumpion”. The orange squashes were first mentioned in the English language in a plant book printed by Peter Treveris, called The Grete Herball, published in London in 1526.In metropolitan Britain, pumpkins were seen as a special food, expensive and exotic. But in the British Atlantic colonies pumpkins, pumpkin leaves, and pumpkin seeds appeared in the bowls and on the tables of many different kinds of people. They continued to hold a valued role in the diets of indigenous Americans, and they were consumed by rich as well as poor, white women and men. Enslaved women and men ate pumpkins too, growing them in their gardens.Northeastern Native American tribes grew squash and pumpkins and roasted or boiled them for eating. Settlers were impressed by the squash or pumpkins when they had to survive their first harsh winter and about half of the settlers died from scurvy and exposure. The Native Americans brought pumpkins as gifts to the first settlers, and taught them the many ways they used the pumpkin. The pumpkin pie was cooked about 50 years after the first Thanksgiving in America.Both the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe ate pumpkins and other squashes indigenous to New England—possibly even during the harvest festival—but the fledgling colony lacked the butter and wheat flour necessary for making pie crust. Moreover, settlers hadn’t yet discovered an oven for baking.According to some accounts, early English settlers in North America improvised by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes.

Pumpkin is one of the most versatile vegetables and is eaten as both savory and sweet dishes, but arguably the most popular use for it in the Anglo-American tradition is by cooking it in a pumpkin pie. Creamy, sweet, and custardy, pumpkin pie appears on most Thanksgiving tables across America over time. One of the earliest recipes for pumpkin pie can be found in the Folger Vaults: “To make a Pumpion Pie”, which appears in a seventeenth-century cookbook written by Hannah Woolley. American colonists relied heavily on pumpkin as a food source as early as 1630. Colonists prepared pumpkins as they sliced off their tops, removed the seeds and refilled the inside with a mixture of milk, spices and honey. The resultant concoction was baked in hot ashes and is said to be the origin of our modern Pumpkin Pie.Columbus took pumpkin seeds back to Europe. However pumpkins are warm season vegetables that require a relative long growing season. Thus they never gained popularity in northern Europe and the British Isles where the summer temperatures were not conducive to their growth.

Food historian K.T. Achaya points out that pumpkins were a part of Indian food tradition from ancient times, and were grown on the banks of rivers in village outskirts.“Long before the intervention of man, the ability of gourds to float in sea water while retaining seed viability must have carried them across the seas from continent to continent. The so-called winter squash or red pumpkin of America is called urubuka in Sanskrit; today it is known as lal kumra, kaddhu or kumbalakayi”. Chinese traveller Xuan Zang, who visited 110 of the 138 kingdoms in every part of India between 629 and 645 AD, mentioned pumpkin, ginger, mustard and melon. Ibn Battuta noted that pumpkins grew in the dry river beds adjacent to the Sindh desert.

Francois Pierre la Varenne, the famous French chef and author of one of the most important French cookbooks of the 17th century, wrote a cookbook called Le Vrai Cuisinier Francois (The True French Cook). It was translated and published in England as The French Cook in 1653. It had a recipe for a pumpkin pie that included the pastry: Tourte of pumpkin – Boile it with good milk, pass it through a straining pan very thick, and mix it with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds; let all be very thin.  Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it.  After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve.By the 1670’s, recipes for a sort of “pumpion pie” appeared in English cookbooks as the The Queen-like Closet. To make a Pumpion-Pie – Take a Pumpion, pare it, and cut it in thin slices, dip it in beaten Eggs and Herbs shred small, and fry it till it be enough, then lay it into a Pie with Butter, Raisins, Currans, Sugar and Sack, and in the bottom some sharp Apples, when it is baked, butter it and serve it in. In 1672, John Josselyn included a pumpkin recipe in his book New-England Rarities Discovered. This was one of the first recipes to come out of the United States. The side dish called for dicing ripe pumpkin and cooking it in a pot over the course of a day. Once finished, butter and spices were added. This early recipe sounds a bit like our modern preparation of mashed sweet potatoes. It was in 1796 that an American cookbook American Cookery by Amelia Simmons was published.  It was the first American cookbook written and published in America, and the first cook book that developed recipes for foods native to America.Her pumpkin puddings were baked in a crust and similar to present day pumpkin pies: Pompkin Pudding No. 1.  One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour. During the 17th century,cooks challenged themselves in the kitchen by developing unique and tasty new ways to serve pumpkin.Today, the most popular way to prepare pumpkins is undoubtedly pumpkin pie. This trend first began during the 1800’s when it became stylish to serve sweetened pumpkin dishes during the holiday meal. The earliest sweet pumpkin recipes were made from pumpkin shells that had been scooped out and filled with a ginger-spiced milk, then roasted by the fire.

Pumpkins can be carved, painted as well as cooked in myriad ways across the world. A roast Pumpkin Soup with some croutons could give you that instant warmth.A Pumpkin Spinach Pie could well be a comfort main course. A baked Pumpkin Fondue, a Pumpkin Cheesecake and a Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookie adds variety to the pumpkin repertoire. Pumpkin pies are perhaps the most popular and most eaten pumpkin dish across the world.Few of the festival foods can claim deeper American roots than pumpkins. Pumpkins also feature in Southern European cooking.In Spain pumpkin is used both sweet and savory – Alboronia ( a pumpkin and chickpea stew),Bunuelos de Calabaza (a fritter and a cross between Churos and Donuts).Pumpkin in Italy is known as Zuca and Risotto de Zucca ,Pumpkin Ravioli and Gnocchi are popular.Mexico is known for its candied pumpkins known as Calabaza en Tacha as well as Pumpkin Empanadas.

In 1903 Circleville mayor George Haswell started an autumn produce festival, and pumpkins became the centerpiece of the event. The canning company shut down during the Great Depression, but the festival continues till date.Known as the Pumpkin Show, this event celebrates pumpkins in many forms. One can expect a variety of pumpkin-flavored treats including pumpkin donuts, burgers, taffy and ice cream. The festival also holds a contest for largest pumpkin, largest pumpkin pie and a Miss Pumpkin Show pageant.

When the Pilgrims sailed for America on the Mayflower in 1620, it’s likely some of them were as familiar with pumpkins as the Wampanoag, who helped them survive their first year at Plymouth Colony, were. A year later, when the 50 surviving colonists were joined by a group of 90 Wampanoag for a three-day harvest celebration, it’s likely that pumpkin was on the table in some form. In 1654, Massachusetts ship captain Edward Johnson wrote that as New England prospered, people prepared “apples, pears, and quince tarts instead of their former Pumpkin Pies.”A 1653 French cookbook instructed chefs to boil the pumpkin in milk and strain it before putting it in a crust. English writer Hannah Woolley’s 1670 “Gentlewoman’s Companion” advocated a pie filled with alternating layers of pumpkin and apple, spiced rosemary, sweet marjoram and handful of thyme. By the early 18th century pumpkin pie earned a place at the table, as Thanksgiving became an important New England regional holiday. Amelia Simmons’ 1796 “American Cookery” contained a pair of pumpkin pie recipes.

It was in the mid-19th century that pumpkin pie rose to political significance in the United States as it got linked into the country’s tumultuous debate over slavery. Many of the staunchest abolitionists were from New England, and their favorite dessert soon found mention in novels, poems and broadsides. Sarah Josepha Hale, an abolitionist who worked for decades to have Thanksgiving proclaimed a national holiday, featured the pie in her 1827 anti-slavery novel “Northwood”, describing a Thanksgiving table laden with desserts of every name and description—“yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche.” In 1842 another abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child, wrote her famous poem about a New England Thanksgiving that began, “Over the river, and through the wood” and ended with a shout, “Hurra for the pumpkin pie!”After the Civil War, Thanksgiving—and with it, pumpkin pie—extended its national reach, bolstered by write-ups . In 1929 Libby’s meat-canning company of Chicago introduced a line of canned pumpkin that soon became a Thanksgiving fixture in its own right.

Over the course of the next two centuries, pumpkin pie and its fame grew with the rising popularity of Thanksgiving. But it wasn’t until the release of Amelia Simmons’ cookbook American Cookery (the first real ‘American’ cookbook) in 1796 that the pie became nationally recognized as an American Thanksgiving hallmark – the book contained two recipes for pumpkin pie, one of which closely resembles recipes widely used today. Legend has it that in the early 18th century, a small town postponed its Thanksgiving for a week because ‘there wasn’t enough molasses available to make pumpkin pie.’

Pumpkin pie even found its way into the workings of the Civil War. By the time Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, Southerners were already in dispute, stating that ‘this is an annual custom of that people, heretofore celebrated with devout oblations to themselves of pumpkin pie and roast turkey.’But this didn’t have an effect on the spread of Thanksgiving (and pumpkin pie) across the nation. Many women’s magazines featured recipes for pumpkin pie, and shortly after, Libby’s meat-canning company developed the first line of canned pumpkin – releasing it in 1929.Putting pumpkin pie on the table at Thanksgiving became that much easier, sealing its fate as an all-American tradition.

Pumpkin has been used across India in almost all regional cuisines sometimes spiced up and many a times made into a desert.For Bengalis Pumpkin or Kumro is used both in vegetarian as well as non vegetarian dishes. The sweetness of the pumpkin blends it well with several vegetables and greens.Be it the Kumror Chokka – pumpkins cooked with a tempering of Bengali five spices,bay leaf,spiced up with ginger paste and finished off with grated coconut and some boiled Bengal gram or the Pumpkin cooked with potatoes and gourd or a simple Pumpkin stir fry tempered with nigella seeds and fried onions.All of these are great sides and are served with Luchi or Paratha. Pumpkins are also part of mish mash of vegetables and greens like Palak or Pui. For Bengalis from East Bengal pumpkins are used in several non-vegetarian dishes.Pumpkin,brinjal potatoes are cooked with fish head.Pumpkins are also cooked with Hilsa in a typical Dacca household. One of my favourite way of incorporating the sweet taste of the pumpkin is by using it in a spicy dish made with dried fish like prawns or Bombay Duck.

In North India Pumpkin or Kaddu is used in a pumpkin curry as well as cooked with chickpeas.Pumpkin is also used in a Raita. Pumpkin is also made into a halwa as well as made into a kheer during festivals as Navratri. Most of the southern states have their own sambars but most of them use pumpkin. Pumpkin Sambar known as Mukkala Sambar is offered in temples and is popular in Andhra Pradesh. Pumpkin Oambal from north east cooks boiled pumpkin with tamarind, jaggery and is tempered with red chilies and mustard.Pumpkin Erissery from Kerala is a dish of pumpkin,red beans,grated coconut ,curry leaves and is served with Kerala red rice and Kanji. Avial another popular dish in Kerala and Tamil Nadu uses pumpkin among other vegetables .

Pumpkin one of the most common everyday vegetable is as versatile as it can be to a cook.Dried pumpkin seeds are now regarded as super food,the pumpkin leaves can be used in a vegetable pish pash or chorchorri what the Bengalis call it and can even be stuffed and steamed.The pumpkin pies remain inextricably linked with the American life and culture.Carve your pumpkin,paint your pumpkin or cook your pumpkin but do love the commonplace pumpkin.Remembered a childhood rhyme about pumpkins-

“Pumpkins by the barn.
Pumpkins by the house.
Pumpkins by the wagon.
Pumpkins by the mouse.

Pumpkins by the fence.
Pumpkins by the cat.
Pumpkins by the scarecrow.
Pumpkins by the hat.,

Pumpkins by the table.
Pumpkins by the chair.
Pumpkins by the door.
Pumpkins everywhere!”

Author: ranjinipinky

Always happy when it comes to food and travel.Love looking beyond the cuisine and beyond the known landscape.Food describes a person,a culture ,a nation and a psyche.Both foodscape and landscape of a place joins together to weave the history of the place.My endeavor is to travel through that history,enrich myself and evolve continuously.Be my co- traveler through this enriching experience.