CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Over the last several weeks, I have discussed several of the signs of autumn found in nature. I have sung the praises of chrysanthemums, I have waxed poetic about the pigments found in autumn leaves, and I even exposed the true culprit behind fall allergies. It is only fitting that we now turn our attention to another player in the autumnal show -- the pumpkin--and its lesser-loved, step-sister, the gourd.
Many see pumpkins as a symbol of a fruitful harvest. They are, after all, harvested only in the autumn after a lengthy growing season. They, along with their other squashy friends, were a prized part of the fall and winter diet for peoples ranging from the American Indians, early settlers and pioneers, thanks to their long-term storage capabilities. When cold winter means an absence of fresh fruits and vegetables in the garden, a splash of color can both waken bored taste buds and stave off nutrient deficiencies.
A family resemblance?
The pumpkin and other squashes are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes cucumbers, zucchini, watermelons, summer squash and luffa gourds. All of the family members have a similar fruit shape called a pepo, which consists of a hard outer rind, hard yet watery flesh, and seeds either in a chamber or spread through the flesh. Despite differences in appearance, many of these plants are very closely related--to the point of being the same species. While a pumpkin and a zucchini look almost nothing alike, they are both Cucurbita pepo, meaning that they can cross-breed and result in a Puccini rather than a pumpkin or zucchini.
The family members that we associate with fall, aside from pumpkins, include butternuts, acorns, cushaws and permillions. The last two may not be that familiar as they are an old-timey and more regional extraction of the family. Cushaws are those big white and green striped crook-necked beauties you might find at a farmer's market. More rare are the permillions, sometimes referred to as banana squash, which are long orange monstrosities.
Both make excellent pies and other pumpkin-esque dishes. In fact, my family prefers cushaw pies to pumpkin, and the best pumpkin pie I ever had was made of cushaw.
A "North" American tradition
Pumpkins and the other squashes are believed to have originated in Mexico more than 7,500 years ago. We Americans revere the pumpkin so much that it plays a role in two major holidays: Halloween and Thanksgiving, of course. Halloween would not be nearly so spooky without the glowing eyes of a jack-o'-lantern, and Thanksgiving would only be semi-sweet without pumpkin pie (or cake, or bread or rolls). In fact, we Americans love our pumpkins so much, we produce more than 1.8 billion pounds of them.
Another tradition is the growing of giant pumpkins for festivals and competitions. But guess what, those really aren't pumpkins. They're C. maxima, a whole different species.
Picking the perfect pumpkin for Your purpose