Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Thanksgiving - Pumpkin

Hm, pumpkin pie! Or is it?
       Years ago our family hosted a French foreign exchange student. Since she was here to learn about our culture, she would, of course, want to sample many of our favorite dishes. One of the first we served was pumpkin pie. Her reaction upon tasting it was a not-at-all-pleased "What IS this?" In Europe, pumpkin is food for pigs, has been since Columbus took seeds back with him. Oops.
       Most of us here in America eat pumpkin in the form of pie. Some people like the seeds too. For the Pilgrims pumpkins were one of the major foods that saved them from starvation. We are taught that the Indians taught the Pilgrims how to grow pumpkins, and that's about the only mention they get in a normal history book.
       I had supposed that the Pilgrims cut up their pumpkins and cooked them like we would potatoes. Further research tells me I was wrong. There's no clear documentation that any sort of pumpkin pie was served at the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration, but somewhere along the way the Pilgrims learned to make something similar, sort of. They cut off the top, scooped out the seeds, and filled the cavity with cream, honey, eggs, and spices, replaced the top and buried the whole thing in hot cools from their cooking fire. When the soft, blackened thing was dug out again, the cooked flesh and custard were scooped out and served. They also learned to make pumpkin beer.
       The Indians themselves used nearly every part of the pumpkin. Even while growing, it aided them as part of the Three Sisters, the practice of raising squash, corn and beans together. Bean roots set nitrogen in the soil and helped support the corn against winds. The corn provided a trellis for the climbing beans while the pumpkin shaded the corn's shallow roots. Gardeners still practice this today. They reportedly ate pumpkin flesh roasted in strips over their campfires, and baked, parched, boiled and dried. Seeds served as both food and medicine. Even the blossoms went into stews. The flesh was dried, stored until needed, and ground for flour. A dried shell became a bowl or storage container. If there was more than was needed for food, dried strips could be used to weave mats.
       If you are picturing the modern roundish, upright pumpkin, revise your vision. The pumpkins introduced to the Pilgrims would have been the crooked neck type, more like what we think of as a gourd.
       If you plan on making pies from pumpkins you grow, be sure to plant a pie-making variety. Are you aware that the "pumpkin" you purchase in the can is actually a different variety of squash, tastier than a field pumpkin, no doubt, but still not what you would expect in a can clearly labelled "pumpkin"? The easiest way I have found to prepare pumpkin as pie filling is to cut it in half at the equator, use a spoon to clean out the seeds and stringy stuff, then set the halves, open side down, in a shallow pan with a half inch or so of water. Bake this at 350 until a toothpick passes easily through the shell. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of your pumpkin, but will probably be at least half an hour. Cool until you can handle it, then scoop out the soft flesh and either mash it with a potato masher or with an electric mixer. Use immediately or package to accommodate the recipe you use and freeze.
       (The pie in the photo is actually a sweet potato pie but it was made with a pumpkin pie recipe.)
Source for much of this is

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