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By Ellen Probert Williamson
Farmers’ roadside stands are piled high right now with pumpkins and squashes. Supermarkets are featuring them with pumpkins pies (which the early colonists termed “a pudding baked into crust”), pumpkin bread and plastic jack-o’-lanterns.
Using pumpkins to make jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween is an American idea, too. It is an adaptation of the medieval custom of making lanterns from hollowed-out turnips. In medieval England, Scotland and Ireland, elves, ghosts and fairies were believed to haunt the earth. It was customary to build huge bonfires to ward them off.
The early jack-o’-lanterns were small and contained fires to protect the house. They were made of the big, yellow turnips we call rutabagas.
An astonishing fact is that pumpkins are actually berries. When we think of berries, we tend to think small, as in cranberries or blueberries. But pumpkins can be enormous and weigh 100 pounds or more. Can you imagine a 100-pound raspberry?
Pumpkins have separate male and female flowers. If you had a pumpkin patch in your garden this summer, you were probably alarmed when the first of its flowers all fell off. You needn’t have worried; these were all male flowers. The female, pumpkin-producing flowers come later and, as you now know, all was well.
Pumpkins keep better if they are picked with at least a 1-inch stem. They come in all sizes, from the recently developed miniatures, which are popular for holiday decorations and table centerpieces, to the county fair award-winning giants, which sometimes grow to unbelievable size.
The World Pumpkin Confederation sponsors annual awards for the world’s heaviest pumpkin. The main weighing ceremony is in Collins, N.Y., with contestants going there from all over the world. It takes place in the fall, but another session is in the spring at the southern hemisphere weighing, since the seasons are reversed below the equator. Pumpkins are harvested in April there.
The Confederation publishes a newsletter and has more than 1,000 members in 15 countries. The largest pumpkin listed in its records weighed 671 pounds and was 12 feet in circumference. Think about a strawberry or a raspberry that size.
Among the Indian nations pumpkins and squashes were probably next to corn in importance for cultivated plants. In addition to supplying a highly nutritious food, utensils (such as water bottles and dishes), religious objects (such as masks) and musical instruments (like horns, flutes and rattles) were made from them.
The Iroquois preserved pumpkins and squashes by cutting them into thin pieces and suspending the dried sections on cords from the cowlings of their lodges. To cook them, the squashes were baked in the hot embers of a fire and then eaten, shell and all, or were cleaned of seeds and boiled.
In the Southwest, the Navajos had several ways to prepare pumpkins. Sometimes they were cut in quarters and roasted in stone ovens, hot fire embers or on open flames. Or they could be sliced into small chips boiled in water and salted or fried in lamb fat. To store them, squashes were sliced in strips and parched over hot embers.
Infertile squash blossoms were boiled by the Iroquois and used as a special flavoring with other foods, but the Navajos boiled them with lamb as a soup.
Squash blossoms were often gathered when they were at their best. They were then dried in the shade on cords and stored for use in flavoring soups and meats.
Some Indian tribes used crushed pumpkin seeds as a poultice for wounds or made an infusion of the seeds for use as a diuretic.
The earliest colonists on these shores discovered pumpkins — or “pompions” — and squashes with joy. Of all the puddings and pies the colonial housewife was to make, the first was a kind of pumpkin stew or sauce.
“The pumpkin,” wrote Edward Johnson, “was the first food which the Lord fed his people until corn and cattle increased.”
Pumpkins were the wilderness staple which sustained the first settlers of Virginia. It was truly deserving of the title, “The Ancient New England Standing Dish,” for which John Josselyn declared it.
Just as in the 19th-century people spoke of meat and potatoes as natural culinary companions, so throughout the 17th and 18th centuries did colonists combine pumpkin sauce with fish or meat.
Early travelers did not always distinguish between pumpkins and squashes. “Quasiens,” or squash, and pumpkins were used to make puddings, pies and sauce and as an ingredient in a rather heavy type of bread.
A diarists in Rhode Island wrote, “The ease with which they are cooked renders them a favorite with young cooks. They gather the squashes and immediately place them on the fire without any further trouble.
What a good idea to try. With a dash of salt and plenty of butter, what could be better for lunch on a crisp autumn day?
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.