Pumpkins are crowding the sidewalks of our local grocery stores, glowing in the fields and seem to be the harbinger of cool, dark fall evenings ahead. Pumpkins come in a variety of colors, sizes, and purposes. Over 27 million tons of pumpkins were grown worldwide in 2017. India and China accounted for 47 percent of the crop. In the U.S., Illinois is the top pumpkin producer. Most of the pumpkin crop is canned. Only a small portion of the crop is sold for fresh use.
Originating in North America, pumpkins were perhaps one of the first domesticated vegetables. Traces of pumpkins seeds have been unearthed from geological sites and dated back 7,000 to 5,500 year B.C. Native Americans used pumpkins as a food staple. The first colonists quickly adopted this vegetable as a main crop because it stored easily and was tasty.
A member of the Cucurbita family, pumpkins are related to squash and cucumbers. They are also very nutritious. The bright orange color is a sign that they’re rich in beta carotene which is converted to vitamin A in our body. One cup of pumpkin contains seven grams of fiber, over 200 per cent of our daily need for vitamin A, and is a good source of iron, selenium, calcium, B vitamins — and has only 50 calories. Not only is the pumpkin’s flesh a healthy food choice, but roasted pumpkin seeds are also edible. The seeds are a great source of protein and unsaturated fats, including omega. In fact, pumpkin seeds have more protein than peanuts.
Pumpkins also fill another role. Carve a pumpkin, add a candle and you have a jack-o’-lantern, a symbol of Halloween. Here is an interesting historical fact: The carving of vegetables was first recorded in parts of the U.K. The Irish hollowed out turnips and placed an ember within to keep the evil spirits away. Once pumpkins were brought from North America, the lowly turnip was ignored. If you’re wondering how jack-o’-lanterns got their name, perhaps a quick internet search will satisfy your curiosity.
Fresh pumpkins are now appearing in farmers markets. They can be used in a variety of recipes. Besides pumpkin pie, they are a tasty addition to squash soup, delicious in muffins, cookies and bread pudding. I raise two types of pumpkins every year. The first is a carving pumpkin named Mrs. Wrinkles. This pumpkin is quite different. It doesn’t need to turn from green to orange because it starts out orange. The pie pumpkin I prefer is named Winter Luxury. This variety has sweet flesh and is a good keeper. The ideal weight for a pie pumpkin is between 2 to 6 pounds. Remember to select a pumpkin that is firm, avoiding any that have signs of mold, softening, or cracks.