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The most versatile of foods


No Thanksgiving feast would be complete without pumpkin pie, but aside from asking for a second helping, few folks realize the versatility and importance of this useful vegetable. Pumpkins and squash belong to the genus Cucurbita, which contains 27 species of vigorous trailing and climbing annuals and perennials that originated in North and South America. Six of the species were important food plants in the pre-Columbian culture of the Americas, which was based on a diet of maize, beans, pumpkins and squash. So when the first explorers arrived in America, they observed pumpkins being cultivated in maize fields by Native Americans who utilized the plants for medicine as well as for food.

The pumpkin carved its way into our very language by being immortalized in prose and poetry. Cinderella's elegant coach was transformed from a pumpkin; Washington Irving's headless horseman in the tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow carried a pumpkin "head" to throw at unfortunates' and Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater from the nursery rhyme supposedly kept his wife in a pumpkin shell. While Pete's wife lived in one, Henry David Thoreau reflected that he would rather "sit on a pumpkin than on a velvet cushion" if it meant preserving his privacy. The pumpkin appeared in fables and many other literary works. The term "pumpkin head" was used back in the 1700s by snobby Yale students to refer to New England farmers; by the next century "a pumpkin" had come to mean a stupid or thick-headed person. The slur altered over time to "bumpkin."

But Americans were not bumpkins when it came to dreaming up ingenious methods of using pumpkins. A paste of crushed pumpkin and watermelon seeds was used to heal wounds in the Yuma tribe, while the Catawbas ate the seeds as a kidney medicine. Later, colonists learned to grind pumpkin stems for a tea to treat "female ills." The ripe seeds would rid the body of intestinal worms and oil pressed from the seeds healed burns. Pumpkins became a virtual pharmacy for colonists who used pumpkins and squash to cure everything from snakebite to removing freckles. Boiled and mashed, the orange flesh was a handy poultice for sore eyes. Various pains from childbirth and toothaches to chilblains were thought to subside if the sufferer chewed on a bit o' pumpkin. If nothing else, it probably took their minds off their troubles.

Pumpkin is definitely the most versatile of foods--it can be eaten as a vegetable, baked or grilled, added to stew, cooked and pureed to make a tasty soup or served as the main ingredient for puddings, pies and marmalade. Last summer while in Northern Wisconsin, I bought a tasty preserve from a roadside stand called "pumpkin butter." There are numerous muffins, breads, cakes and cookies made with pumpkin. Some types of pumpkin can even be eaten raw. Pumpkin and squash blossoms are edible and can be used fresh or batter-dipped and fried into fritters. And as any kid knows, roasted and salted pumpkin seeds make a delicious snack. Combine all these wondrous attributes with the fact that the pumpkin-squash clan includes some of the largest vegetables on the planet (The largest pumpkin ever grown weighed over 1,100 pounds!) and you have an amazing edible phenomenon that could feed the universe.

Colonists watched Native Americans dry and flatten strips of orange pumpkin flesh to weave into mats. What next? Roof shingles? How much more could one vegetable provide? The Americans tried to share their enthusiasm with the Europeans, but those ole fuddy-duddies weren't impressed. Europeans considered the orange globes unfit for human consumption until the 19th century. Up until then, squash and pumpkins were only fed to European livestock. The Americans, however, weren't deterred in their enthusiasm to find new ways to use this spectacular vegetable; they even altered the Irish tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns by substituting carved pumpkins for the traditionally carved turnips. Pumpkins are much easier to carve, and the Irish were soon carving pumpkins too.

The irresistible pumpkin became the very symbol of fall, the harvest, Halloween and the proper ending to any Thanksgiving feast. There's no doubt pumpkins are famous, but don't ask a botanist where the pumpkin fits into the scheme of things. Botanists have managed to list pumpkins under three different species claiming that giant pumpkins are really squashes, but smaller pumpkins, although they behave like winter squashes, are actually summer squashes. Confused? It's true that pumpkins and squashes are close relatives, and given half a chance, they'll interbreed to give you seeds that will grow some really strange, misshapen oddities called "squmpkins."

It might be simpler to say that a pumpkin is a type of squash. Mother Nature, no doubt, is laughing at our need to split hairs on the subject of diversity. All I know is that pumpkins originated in the Americas and the apple did not, that means that pumpkin pie is actually more American than apple pie. Now that is food for thought.

--Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail