Though the weather has felt uncharacteristically warm until recently, coffee shops and supermarkets surely haven’t let you forget that it’s autumn by aggressively marketing “pumpkin spice” products: one reporter was able to run into more than 40 of these seasonal products over the course of a week. In 2015, Starbucks, the company that started the craze, made around $100 million in pumpkin spice latte sales. This inundation of pumpkin spice hasn’t gone without criticism–– news outlets ranging from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to The New York Times have condemned America’s infatuation with the fall flavor, with the latter even comparing it to the passive and conformist behavior that elected Donald Trump to office. But before pumpkin spice became associated with all things fall or co-opted to represent our political climate, the pumpkin itself has a fascinating history that you might not know about.
First, the pumpkin (most commonly, Cucurbita pepo var. pepo L.) is actually classified as a berry, as are all of the members of the Cucurbitaceae family. Around 100 million years ago, a “melon-like fruit” evolved as part of the family, which also includes watermelon, cucumbers and the loofah. While “pumpkin” is used in America to only describe bright orange round gourds, the term is used much more broadly to reference any winter squash in other parts of the world. Not only do we eat the pumpkin fruit, but the seeds and flowers can also be cooked or eaten raw.
However, humans were not the first animals to recognize that pumpkins (a cultivar of the broader C. pepo species) were a great source of energy. A few years ago, a study found that the wild ancestors of pumpkins once had a mutualistic relationship with megafauna that roamed North America. Ancient pumpkin seeds found in Mastodon dung showed researchers that the gourds of the past were much smaller and more bitter than its modern descendant. Large bodied megafauna would be able to tolerate the bitter toxins of the fruit, while smaller animals (such as humans) could not. This relationship lead to a much more widespread distribution of the wild C. pepo species than previously thought. At the end of the Ice Age, many Pleistocene megafauna were driven to extinction and the Cucurbita genus was left without a mammal to disperse its seeds and subsequently saw a decline in the wild.
It was only when humans domesticated squash, did the plant once again thrive as it did before. The oldest pumpkin seeds were found in Oaxaca Valley, Mexico and are estimated to have been present in the area 7,500 years ago. Since then, squash became a prominent staple in the diets of people living in the Americas, seen featured in succotash and rings roasted over a fire. Squash is also a key part of “The Three Sisters”, which was their form of sustainable agriculture. Native Americans didn’t only eat pumpkins, but they also used pumpkins for other purposes: Seeds were used for medicine, dried pumpkin was ground in flour, gourd shells became bowls for storage and the flesh was weaved into mats for winter storage.
The Native Americans shared the pumpkin and other squash varieties with the Pilgrims, who used it to make beer and the first pumpkin pie (which wasn’t a pie at all), the latter of which may or may not have been at the first Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, the pumpkin became inextricably associated with the holiday, which is quite apt, since this is produce that is actually originated in the Western hemisphere (compared to apples, an “American” fruit that actually came from Kazakhstan.) This pairing between Thanksgiving and the pumpkin (in the form of pie) is due to author Sarah Josepha Hale’s advocating for the regional holiday to become the celebration of gratitude we know today: she writes in her novel Northwood, that “the pumpkin pie is an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.” For a book that published almost 200 years ago, her influence can’t be ignored: the pumpkin pie still sell well, with Costco selling more than a million pumpkin pies during the week of Thanksgiving in 2008.
Obviously, Halloween is another holiday that strongly identifies with the pumpkin, due to its use for Jack-O-Lanterns, pumpkin painting and decoration in America. The pumpkin’s use as a Jack-O-Lantern is said to be derived from an Irish folktale involving a Blacksmith named Stingy Jack. Based on this legend, the Irish were said to make Jack-O-Lanterns by carving out turnips (seen in the picture) and putting embers inside to ward off evil spirits. Though some colonists did celebrate Halloween, it was only until many Irish immigrated to America in the late 1800s did the holiday become popularized— it is said that the Irish found the pumpkin to be a better canvas for the Jack-O-Lantern, which is what we see today.
Another aspect about the pumpkin that makes it so quintessentially American is that most of the pumpkins that are sold are grown in the country. Additionally, giant pumpkins are the can win their growers prize money and for some, an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden. With edible gardening on the rise as the top hobby for millennials, these squash sensations do not seem to be going away anytime soon.
While the pumpkin is so prominent in or culture–– between two national holidays and even dominating pop culture (in the form of pumpkin spice)–– Americans don’t seem to be eating all that much pumpkin. In many of the pumpkin recipes that I researched used canned pumpkin, rather than fresh. In fact, canned pumpkin isn’t made from the pumpkins sold at the supermarket, but from a different species of squash called Cucurbita moschata. This is because those bright orange pumpkins that look great on your porch usually aren’t as flavorful as other varieties of winter squash. Some people might think that companies are being misleading by labeling other squash as “canned pumpkin”, but the fact is that our perception of the pumpkin as a separate from the squash is a misconception. In America, “pumpkin” describes any squash that looks round, ribbed and orange—a description that many different species of squash can fit.
Despite the type of squash Americans are actually eating, we should be eating more real pumpkin rather than the sugar-laden, overpriced “pumpkin spice” products that dominate the supermarket at this time of year. Many have written about how most pumpkin spice foods do not have any pumpkin in them at all, rather being spiced with a combination of cloves, cinnamon, and other spices that McCormick popularized in the 1950s. This is shame because pumpkins are a great source of fiber, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, which contribute to heart and skin health. Pumpkins also contain the amino acid, tryptophan, and zinc which aid in helping the brain produce more serotonin, improving mood. Pumpkins do not have to be a strictly seasonal plant; there are some who also harvest them in the summer! There are great Native and Latin American recipes such as “Three Sisters” stew and Mexican Pumpkin Empanadas, that allow us to not only reap the pumpkin’s health benefits, but also appreciate its rich, multi-cultural history all year round.