From pumpkin pie to jack-o’-lanterns, the pumpkin exemplifies fall in all its glory. Of all the seasons, fall is the fun season, with not a lot of emotions attached to it except lighthearted good cheer. A big orange pumpkin just plain makes you smile whether you bake it, carve it, smash it or hurl it.Pumpkins are actually a fruit, which is defined as being part of the plant that contain seeds. On top of that, pumpkins are technically squash, being members of the curcubit family, which encompasses pumpkins, gourds, squash, watermelons and cucumber. They come in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colors.
Every part is edible; the skin, leaves, flowers, pulp, seeds and even the stem. They are made up of 90 percent water, so they are low in calories; one cup of mashed pumpkin has only 49 calories and one-half gram of fat. They have more fiber than kale, more potassium than bananas, and are high in fiber and low in sodium. The seeds are high in beta carotene and antioxidants, which help delay aging and protect the heart and the body against cancer. On top of this, they taste good!
They have actually been around for 5,000 years. A French explorer in 1584 called them “gros melons,” which meant large melons. It wasn’t until the 17th century that they started being referred to as pumpkins. They have since come to be fall’s favorite décor and most crafty food.
I recently saw fields near Connorsville, Indiana, that were literally “blooming” with pumpkins. These fields were no small fries, instead they were 250-acre fields and all the pumpkins raised here will go for fall decorating and Halloween. Combined spending for fall decorating and Halloween is second only to Christmas; pumpkins are big business!
However, all pumpkins are not created equal and bigger is not always better. The size and variety depend on its use. The giant pumpkins that get all the oohs and ahhs at county fairs are good for only one thing: competition. They are too big and awkward to be carved or to even consider cooking down for pie. When choosing carving pumpkins, look for nice shapes and varieties that will last several days. When choosing pumpkins for cooking, choose ones based on taste and texture.
One of my favorite fall excursions is to visit pumpkin patches. I love to watch kids choosing that special one for their jack-o’-lantern, and being in a sea of orange just makes you feel good. Whether you are going for the pie “punkins” or the carving ones, there are a few general guidelines to help you get the best that the patch has to offer.
Make sure the skins are hard enough for short storage, which is a sign of a mature pumpkin. Check for soft spots and bruises, especially on the bottom where they lay on the ground. All it takes is a small nick to let infection into the flesh. Once this happens, they will rot and go downhill quickly. They are ready to harvest only when the vines start to dry. Ones picked any sooner will stop changing color when they are cut. Although tempting, don’t carry them by the stem because they can break and crack easily, also leaving room for decay.
Sometimes it is so tempting to be the early bird and get one of the first pumpkins on the market and enjoy your jack-o’-lantern for quite a while before Halloween. There are a few tips to ensure that they will still be a scary beacon on fright night. Keeping them in a cool, dark place out of sunlight will extend their life, as will draping them with a damp towel and spraying them with an anti-transpirant like Wilt-Pruf. At the top of the list of do nots is do not let your jack-o’-lantern get frosted.
Smaller varieties of pumpkins, somewhere between 4 and 8 pounds, are more suited for eating and cooking. They usually have denser flesh with smoother texture and a higher sugar content. Even though the shells of pumpkins get dull as they age, the flesh will remain intact and can even get sweeter. Many times winter squash such as butternut are not only used in place of pumpkin in pies and other recipes, but are actually preferred over pumpkin. And don’t think that the big orange fruit is just for pies; it is an excellent choice for cheesecake, cookies, pancakes, muffins and much more.
With all this said, here are a few more fun facts about pumpkins:
• The original jack-o’-lanterns were made with turnips and potatoes.
• Pumpkins are grown on every continent except Antarctica.
• Over 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are produced each year in the United States. Top producing states are Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California. Illinois is the top producer with 95 percent of the country’s pumpkins grown on Illinois soil, and 80 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin. Morton, Illinois, is the pumpkin capital of the world.
• During one month (October), 80 percent of the United States' pumpkin crop is ripe for picking — over 800 million pumpkins!
• Minnesota holds the record for the world’s largest pumpkin to date. It was grown in 2010 and measured more than 5 feet in diameter and weighed over 1,800 pounds.
• Pumpkin pie originated with the colonists but was quite different from those of today. The tops of the pumpkins were cut off, seeds were removed, and then they were filled with milk, spices and honey and baked in hot ashes. The largest pumpkin pie ever baked weighed 2,020 pounds.
• There are more than 45 varieties of pumpkins and each fruit has about 500 seeds, which take between 90 and 120 days to grow. High in iron, they are one of the best nutritional snacks.
• Delaware hosts the annual “Punkin Chunkin Championship” where teams compete in pumpkin launching competitions. Can you believe that they are shot at almost 5,000 feet from an air cannon!
• Pumpkin pie is America’s second favorite pie, only autumn’s other favorite fruit, the apple, beats it.Charlie Brown had the right idea when he went in search of “The Great Pumpkin.” Fall just wouldn’t be fall without the big orange fruit.