(Cucurbita maxima, C. mixta, C. pepo)
Cucurbita is the old Latin name for gourd; mixta means “mixed,” and pepo comes from the Greek word pepon, meaning “sun-ripened” or “mellow.” The English name pumpkin derives from the Greek word, to which was later added the diminutive -kin ending.
The pumpkin, along with other squashes, is native to the Americas. The first Pilgrims barely survived their first winter in 1620 with the help of the lowly pumpkin; they knew sweet and fragrant melons but had never seen these hardy cousins, which the Indians grew as staples between corn and beans. Ranging in size from less than a pound to more than a hundred pounds (National Geographic World reported an 816-pound monster grown in Nova Scotia in 1990), the pumpkin also comes in a variety of colors ranging from white and peach to even blue and aqua. Deep orange is the color most familiar to Americans. European pumpkins mature sooner than their American counterparts and are generally pale yellow in color, with flesh that is less firm than the American variety; Russian pumpkins have white flesh and pale green skins. First cultivated by American Indians, who dried and made them into a type of flour, pumpkins are now most commonly used either for the traditional Halloween jack-o’-lantern or for pumpkin pie. Buying Tips Pumpkins of quality should be heavy for their size and free of blemishes, with a hard rind; the sugar pumpkin, which is quite small, is the variety generally considered best for cooking. Culinary Uses Nobody can argue the popularity of pumpkin pie . . . or pumpkin bread, pumpkin butter, pumpkin bars, and even pumpkin ice cream. To prepare a pumpkin, scrape out all the interior seeds and membrane, saving the seeds if you plan to eat them later. Peel off the skin with a vegetable peeler or sharp knife. Generally thought of only as a cooked vegetable, pumpkin can be eaten raw and is delicious when very finely grated and served in combination with grated carrots and beets as a base for salads. It can also be baked or boiled like other winter squash and used in soups, stews, and many baked goods (including corn bread) in addition to pies. In the Caribbean pumpkin is braised into spicy, fragrant stews with chilies, legumes, and sometimes meat. The French cook it into soup and serve it within its own tureenlike shell. The early male blossoms can be picked for salads, sautéing, or stuffing. The seeds are also edible and are discussed in the Nuts, Seeds, and Oils section. Health Benefits pH 4.90–5.50. Diuretic, laxative. Pumpkin is alkaline in reaction and raises the blood pressure, thus helping the blood to carry nourishment to various parts of the body. Cooked pumpkin destroys intestinal worms but not as effectively as pumpkin seeds. Cooking pumpkins converts them from a readily digested sugar to a starchy carbohydrate. Lore and Legend: The best of the pumpkin tales is one of Aesop’s fables, which tells of a man who lay beneath an oak tree, criticizing the Creator for hanging a tiny acorn on so huge a tree, but an enormous pumpkin on such a slender vine. Then, the story goes, an acorn fell and hit him on the nose. Jacko’-lanterns are an essential part of Halloween, the day before All Saints’ Day on November 1. Several Indian tribes carved the shells into ritual masks, a practice that continues, but shorn of its religious implications. Who Jack was is far from certain, but an Irish legend has it that there was a man named Jack who, forbidden to enter heaven because of his stinginess and barred from hell because of his practical jokes, was condemned to walk the earth with his lantern until Judgment Day. The pumpkin was a symbol of fruitfulness, rebirth, and health in early China, where it is still called the Emperor of the Garden. In 1988 Leonard Stellpflug of Rush, New York, trucked a 6531/2-pound pumpkin to the annual World Pumpkin Confederation weigh-in in Collins, New York. It broke the old squash record by almost 50 pounds. When asked how he grew it, Stellpflug shrugged and said, “Well-rotted manure and twenty-two pounds of fertilizer per plant.” Whole Foods Companion is available now.