Something shifts when the temperature dips below 65 degrees. At the first sign of autumn leaves, we break out the sweaters, scarves, and everything pumpkin spice. But while you can find pumpkin in coffee and creamer, baked goods and spreads, and even candles and potpourri, we’re going straight to the source at the end of the vine.
Pumpkins have been in our homes and our meals for more than 7,500 years. Originating in Central America, these first pumpkins were used for their versatile flesh, which was perfect storing other food through the winter(1) or weaving mats out of the dried strips.(2) The beloved pumpkin pie began as a hollowed out pumpkin filled with milk, spices, and honey before being baked in hot ashes.
The pumpkin has also appeared in folklore and literature for centuries, including The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Cinderella, and the Irish myth of “Stingy Jack,” from which we can trace the tradition of the jack-o-lantern.
Stingy Jack was doomed to roam the earth forever with only a burning coal, which he placed into a carved out turnip (read the full myth here). This gave him the name “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack O’Lantern.” The people of Ireland and Scotland first carved faces into turnips or potatoes (the English even used large beets) to scare off wandering spirits. Once the tradition made its way to the Americas, the immigrants found that pumpkins were ideal for jack-o-lantern carving.(2)
Today, you’ll see jack-o-lanterns that are creepy or cute or a work of art. They can even send a message – you can raise awareness for our hungry neighbors by using these stencils and displaying your support on Halloween night:
[STENCIL 1] [STENCIL 2]
But before you can pick out the perfect pumpkin while sipping fresh cider from the orchard, they need several months to grow and “vine.” Despite their tough exterior, pumpkins are actually very tender vegetables. They won’t grow well in cold soil and frost, so pumpkins for Halloween are planted from late May to early July. Vining pumpkins need plenty of room to grow, with 5-6 feet between each plant.
Once they turn a deep, solid color (typically orange) and the rind is hard, the pumpkins are ready to harvest. If you are harvesting your own pumpkin from the farm, be sure to bring gardening gloves and use pruning shears or a sharp knife to leave 3-4 inches of stem attached. If you snap the stem from the vine, leaving your pumpkin with a missing “handle,” it won’t keep as long!(3)
Similarly, when choosing a pre-cut pumpkin, look for one without blemishes or soft spots and at least 1-2 inches of stem.(4) If you are feeling adventurous in the kitchen, look for a “pie- or sweet-pumpkin,” which are smaller than jack-o-lantern pumpkins. For every pound of raw pumpkin, you can plan to get one cup of pumpkin puree to cook with. More information on the preparation and cooking of pumpkins can be found here.
Pumpkins and other orange vegetables are full of the antioxidant beta-carotene,(5) as explained in our recent blog post. Just keep that in mind while treating yourself to a delicious serving of Pumpkin Pudding Parfait – try the recipe here!
(1) Avey, Tori. “History of Pumpkins and Recipe Round-Up.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 25 Nov. 2014.
(2) Wolford, Ron, and Drusilla Banks. “Pumpkin History.” Pumpkins and More, University of Illinois Extension.
(3) Wolford, Ron, and Drusilla Banks. “Growing Pumpkins.” Pumpkins and More, University of Illinois Extension.
(4) Wolford, Ron, and Drusilla Banks. “Selection and Use.” Pumpkins and More, University of Illinois Extension.
(5) Wolford, Ron, and Drusilla Banks. “Pumpkin Nutrition.” Pumpkins and More, University of Illinois Extension.