By Erin Cabana.
Fall, like all seasons, just keeps rolling along. The leaves have now almost completely fallen off of the trees; the fall rains have moved in and daylight saving time has come to pass. The days get darker sooner and there’s a distinct snap and chill in the air that reminds us that winter is just around the corner. But before winter rears its snowy head and thoughts turn to hot chocolate with Fluff, there’s a bit of time still to revel in the foods of fall. One of the most important foods of this time of year, in my mind at least, is the pumpkin.
The pumpkin plays many roles in the culinary world; everything from pasta fillings to pies, from fancy lattés to the humble (but yet oh so tasty) pumpkin bread. In my house October and November have been declared “Pumpkin Everything Months” and if it’s got pumpkin in it, it’s going to wind up on the kitchen table in some form or another during those two months.
Pumpkins are native to Central and North America, and when the colonists at Plymouth first landed, they were amongst the first foods that the Native Americans taught the settlers to grow. Squash is one of the three plants found in the Three Sisters (the other two being beans and maize). Pumpkins had been known in England prior to this, having first been discovered by traders in the St. Lawrence region where they were called “gros melons” which was then translated by the English into pompions. So beloved did this gourd become that it made its way into Shakespeare in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III S3 :
Mistress Ford: Go to, then: we’ll use this unwholesome humidity,
this gross watery pumpion; we’ll teach him to know
turtles from jays.
During the colonial period, pumpkin was used for everything from the original pumpkin pie, which consisted of a hollowed out pumpkin baked filled with eggs, milk and spices (so more of a pumpkin custard than a pie) or would have been an ingredient in a savory sort of pie, like the one found on All Things New England, which comes from the 1655 book The Complete Cook. (The recipe can be found here.) It would even have been stewed and mashed as we do today with butternut or acorn squash, and served with butter and ginger, cinnamon or nutmeg. It could also be cut into slices and dried to preserve it for use later the season.
So, from a humble “gros melons”, the pumpkin has become one of the quintessential symbols of fall. The pumpkin, or pumpion, ranges from being used as an allegory in Shakespeare, to a symbol to ward off spirits as a Jack O’Lantern, to a fantastic filling for a pie or pasta. Who knew the humble pumpkin was such the multitasker or would take over our culinary world with such flair?
Erin Cabana works full time at a biopharmaceutical company in town. When not ordering chemicals for her team, she spends her time knitting, practicing yoga, gardening and researching both ancient and medieval foods. She can be found wandering the Plymouth Farmer’s Market looking for ingredients to use in her translations of recipes from Ancient to Modern or poking around Plimoth Plantation asking about their heirloom varieties of vegetables and animals.